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United States v. Baxt

November 8, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Orlofsky, District Judge:



This case requires me to consider the circumstances in which a defendant may introduce expert testimony concerning his alleged mental infirmities to demonstrate that he lacked the requisite mens rea to commit the crime charged. On February 19, 1999, Defendant, Paul Baxt ("Baxt"), was indicted for misrepresenting his financial assets on loan applications submitted to Summit Trust Company ("Summit Trust") in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1014 and 2. *fn1 See Indictment (filed Feb. 19, 1999). The alleged offenses occurred in February and May, 1989. See id.; Aff. Dr. Michael Peter Weissberg, Ex. 25 (filed Apr. 27, 1999). Baxt misrepresented his financial assets apparently in the hope that Summit Trust would issue a loan that he and others could use to renovate the Grove Mercantile office building located in Jersey City, New Jersey. See Aff. Dr. Michael Peter Weissberg, Exs. 6, 16. Baxt does not deny that he submitted financial statements over-valuing his financial assets. See id., Ex. 16. He argues instead that he did not have the requisite mens rea to support a conviction for filing false loan applications. See id. Specifically, he contends that when he filed the false financial statements, he suffered from Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis -- a combination of brain dysfunctions that resulted in his making grandiose representations about his financial worth. See id. ¶ 3, Exs. 2-5, 16.

On May 27, 1999, Baxt filed a motion, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2(b), *fn2 giving notice of his intention to introduce expert testimony concerning his alleged mental infirmities. See Notice of Motion to Present Evidence of Def.'s Mental Condition (filed May 27, 1999). According to papers filed by Baxt in accordance with Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, *fn3 Baxt seeks to introduce the expert testimony of two doctors. See Rule 16 Compliance at 1 (filed June 16, 1999). Dr. David Starrett ("Starrett") will testify that in February and May, 1989, Baxt experienced: episodes of reckless and irrational spending during which [Baxt] presented himself as a man of value and wealth. . . . [H]is actions were a by-product of . . . major Bipolar Disorder, DSM-III-R 296.63 with severe depression accompanied by occasional rapid-cycling, manic episodes complete with poor judgment, pressure of thought and action, and grandiosity, occasionally of psychotic proportions. . . . [M]ental illness caused [Baxt's] erratic behavior including the submission of false documents to the Summit Trust Company. . . . [Baxt] typically expected his plans in life to fail, and therefore, never actually expected to receive money from his applications to Summit Trust. [Baxt] was only minimally aware, if at all, of the true nature and consequences of his behavior. Id. at 2-3 (filed June 16, 1999). Dr. Michael P. Weissberg ("Weissberg") will testify additionally that Baxt suffered from Multiple Sclerosis and substance abuse and that these illnesses, along with Baxt's Bipolar Disorder, "degraded [Baxt's] ability to think logically, problem-solve, reason and promote[d] grandiose, impulsive behavior." Id. at 3-5.

On July 17, 1999, the Government filed a motion to exclude Baxt's proposed expert testimony. See Notice of Mot. (filed July 17, 1999). In the alternative, the Government moved for a Daubert hearing and an order compelling Baxt to be examined by a Government-retained doctor. See id.

For the reasons set forth below, I shall deny Baxt's motion to introduce the proposed expert testimony and grant the Government's motion to exclude such testimony because Baxt has failed to make the requisite showing that the proffered expert testimony would be introduced for the narrow purpose of negating the mens rea elements of the offense with which he is charged.

I. Discussion of the Legal Standard for the Admission of Expert

Psychiatric Testimony

The Government argues that the proposed testimony of Starrett and Weissberg is inadmissible because it is irrelevant to an assessment of Baxt's state of mind at the time he filed false financial statements with Summit Trust. See Government's Mot. in Limine at 19-21; Government's Reply Br. in Regard to Expert Testimony at 9-11. Baxt counters that Starrett's and Weissberg's testimony will prove that Baxt lacked the requisite mens rea to be convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1014. See Def. Dr. Paul Baxt's Resp. to Government's Mot. in Limine as to Expert Testimony at 6-11 (filed July 30, 1999).

Expert testimony concerning a criminal defendant's alleged mental illness is admissible in limited circumstances. It is well-settled in this Circuit that such testimony is admissible only if it is offered: (1) in support of a plea of insanity; or (2) to negate the mens rea element of an offense. See United States v. Pohlot, 827 F.2d 889, 896-97 (3d Cir. 1987). There are, furthermore, two mens rea elements to the crime codified in section 1014: (1) knowledge of the falsity of the information submitted to the bank; and (2) the intent to influence the action of the bank. See United States v. Erskine, 588 F.2d 721, 722 (9th Cir. 1978); see also United States v. Sparks, 67 F.3d 1145, 1151-52 (4th Cir. 1995) ("[T]he presence or absence of an intent to deceive is simply irrelevant to the defendant's guilt; the only specific intent that matters for purposes of § 1014 is the intent to influence the bank's actions"). Baxt has not mounted an insanity defense. Consequently, expert testimony concerning Baxt's alleged mental illnesses is admissible only if "it would support a legally acceptable theory of lack of mens rea." Pohlot, 827 F.2d at 905-06. More specifically, the testimony of Starrett and Weissberg is admissible if it supports either a theory that Baxt did not know that the papers he submitted to Summit Trust were false or a theory that Baxt lacked the intent to influence Summit Trust when he filed false statements.

The testimony of Starrett and Weissberg is not admissible, however, if it merely supports a defense of justification or excuse. Defenses of justification and excuse, such as "diminished capacity" and "diminished responsibility" defenses, are not acceptable theories of lack of mens rea. The Third Circuit has held that the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 *fn4 abolished the admission of expert testimony in support of these theories. See id. at 898-99. As a result, expert testimony is admissible only when it is proffered to demonstrate that a defendant actually lacked the requisite mens rea at the time an alleged offense was committed; it is not admissible to mitigate the defendant's responsibility simply because the defendant's alleged mental illness deprived him of the capacity to form intent or prevented him from engaging in normal reflection. See id. at 890, 903-904. Expert psychiatric testimony concerning "unconscious motivation," "impaired volitional control," or an "inability to reflect on the ultimate consequences of one's conduct" is inadmissible. United States v. Cameron, 907 F.2d 1051, 1061 (11th Cir. 1990). A court's focus in assessing the admissibility of expert psychiatric testimony should be "on the proffered link or relationship between the specific psychiatric evidence offered and the mens rea at issue in the case." United States v. Childress, 58 F.3d 693, 730 (D.C.Cir. 1995). Conclusory statements by a defendant about the link between psychiatric evidence and the defendant's mens rea at the time the alleged crime was committed do not render the evidence admissible. See United States v. Bennett, 161 F.3d 171, 181, 185 (3d Cir. 1998). In other words, the testimony of Starrett and Weissberg is inadmissible unless offered to support the claim that either Baxt did not know he filed false statements or that Baxt did not intend to influence the action of the bank through the submission of those statements.

Because psychiatric testimony that does not truly negate mens rea likely confuses jurors and because the use of psychiatric testimony even for the purposes of negating mens rea "may easily slide into wider usage that opens up the jury to theories of defense more akin to justification," District Courts in the Third Circuit have been urged to examine proffers of expert psychiatric testimony closely. Pohlot, 827 F.2d at 890, 903, 905. District Courts have broad discretion to exclude expert testimony that is not offered as part of an insanity defense or to negate the mens rea element of a crime. See Bennett, 161 F.3d at 182; United States v. DiDomenico, 985 F.2d 1159, 1163 (2d Cir. 1993); Erskine, 588 F.2d at 722. The admissibility of expert psychiatric testimony should be determined outside the presence of a jury. See Pohlot, 827 F.2d at 905-906. Ascertaining whether proposed expert testimony is offered to negate the mens rea element of an offense is only the initial step in determining whether such expert testimony is admissible; once this hurdle is overcome, the testimony will be admitted only if it satisfies the requirements of Rules 702 and 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. See United States v. Libutti, Crim.No. 92-611, 1994 WL 774646, at *4-5 (D.N.J. 1994) (Simandle, J.).

The burden that must be met for expert psychiatric testimony to be admitted is a substantial one.

The Pohlot Court has cautioned that the occasions on which expert psychiatric testimony is admissible to defeat the mens ...

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