On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The issue in this appeal is whether the trial court erred in denying defendant Graciano Martinez Rosales' request to call a psychiatrist as an expert witness to testify that, based on defendant's background and the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, defendant's confession was not voluntary and he confessed to a crime he did not commit.
Carolyn Arrington was found stabbed to death in the basement of an apartment building. A resident, Pedro Ventura, admitted that he and defendant entered the basement to have sex with the victim. Ventura stated that defendant had sex with her, argued with her, stabbed her, and put the knife in the garbage outside the building. Police visited defendant, who agreed to talk to them atthe station. Police read him his Miranda rights, which he waived. During a thirty-minute interview, he denied any involvement. Defendant agreed to submit to a polygraph exam. Because the examiner was not immediately available, he was permitted to go home, but he chose to remain at the station. At 2:00 p.m., police transported him to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, where Sergeant Alvarez issued a second set of Miranda warnings. Defendant again waived his rights. Alvarez gave the exam from 5:11 p.m. to 5:43 p.m. Alvarez told the officers that the test revealed defendant was not truthful. Near 9:00 p.m., the police reissued Miranda warnings and defendant waived his rights again. In a recorded statement, he admitted having sexual relations with the victim, but stated that she was fine when he left. He said he had seen a man walking down the basement steps; he ignored the man and went to visit Ventura; and when he left Ventura's apartment, he heard a woman scream and he ran home. The police continued to question defendant after he was again informed of his rights. After midnight, in a second recorded statement, defendant stated that he had argued with Arrington; she slapped him; he lost control and stabbed her; and he dropped the knife in the trash outside. Defendant was indicted for murder and other offenses. He allegedly later told fellow inmate Bernard Dickens that he had "poked" the victim; he believed the police did not have much evidence against him; and he would claim insanity as a defense.
Defendant moved to suppress his statements. He retained psychiatrist Dr. Latimer, who interviewed defendant three times. Dr. Latimer opined that defendant was vulnerable to severe anxiety and panic in an interrogation setting, and that his will was overcome and he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Dr. Latimer acknowledged that he did not conduct psychological tests and that defendant did not have a personality disorder. At the suppression hearing, Dr. Latimer testified that defendant told him that the police had threatened him with the electric chair and said he had five minutes to live. Dr. Latimer opined that defendant's anxiety under such threats caused him to give a false confession to get out of the situation. The State called forensic psychologist Dr. Parra, who evaluated defendant and conducted several tests. Dr. Parra opined that defendant did not have limited intellectual abilities and had the reasoning ability of a young adult. Dr. Parra agreed that defendant suffered from an adjustment disorder, which he described as the "common cold" of psychology that comes and goes as people deal with difficult situations. Dr. Parra disagreed that defendant's will was overborne when he confessed. Testifying on his own behalf, defendant denied that police read him his rights. He claimed that the police threatened him and he confessed because he was afraid he would receive the electric chair. He acknowledged that the police had provided him with food, allowed him to use the bathroom, and did not psychically abuse him.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that defendant's testimony lacked credibility. The court did not find that the alleged police threats were made. The court found that Dr. Parra's testimony was more persuasive than Dr. Latimer's, noting that Dr. Parra based his assessment on objective tests and did not find defendant to have any mental defect that would make it impossible for him to validly waive his rights. The court found that defendant's will was not overborne.
Defendant sought to have Dr. Latimer testify at trial as an expert on false confessions. Dr. Latimer's report noted that his testimony would entail a psychological interpretation of defendant's fear-stricken reaction to direct death threats. The report stated that during a stressful interrogation, the suspect can easily break and issue a false confession. The State opposed the motion, arguing that Dr. Latimer's opinions were based on generalizations and were not tied to a recognized clinical diagnosis. The court denied the motion, finding that psychological testimony about a so-called false confession is not admissible because no reliable body of scientific evidence has been established regarding such confessions. The court concluded that Dr. Latimer failed to proffer "scientifically reliable evidence that would truly assist the trier of fact."
At trial, the State presented numerous witnesses. Defendant called a character witness and testified on his own behalf. He asserted that police threatened him with the electric chair if he did not admit that he killed the victim. He denied confessing to Dickens in jail. The jury found defendant guilty of aggravated manslaughter.
On appeal, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's argument that the court erred in precluding Dr. Latimer's testimony. The panel found that the proposed testimony was not based on scientifically reliable testimony that general anxiety or fear may cause a false confession. The panel also noted that defendant has no longstanding prior diagnosis of a mental disorder; Dr. Latimer was unable to correlate defendant's confessions to any mental illness; and Dr. Latimer merely alluded to generalized notions of anxiety and fear on the part of a suspect being questioned by police.
The Court granted certification to review whether defendant should have been permitted to call his expert to testify that his confession was involuntary. 200 N.J. 475 (2009).
HELD: On the evidence presented, the trial court properly exercised its discretion to exclude the proposed expert testimony that defendant confessed to a crime he did not commit.
1. Criminal defendants are constitutionally guaranteed a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. It is their prerogative to challenge a confession's reliability. Evidence about the making of a confession bears on its credibility and voluntariness. Introduction of such evidence is subject to evidentiary rules that serve the interests of fairness and reliability. (pp. 16-17)
2. The issue is whether the court abused its discretion in excluding Dr. Latimer from testifying at trial. To admit expert testimony under N.J.R.E. 702, the matter must concern a subject that is beyond the understanding of an average juror, and the field testified to must be at a state of the art such that an expert's testimony could be sufficiently reliable. (pp. 18-19)
3. Defendant offered Dr. Latimer's testimony as a psychological interpretation of his panicky reaction to death threats. Dr. Latimer largely relied on defendant's assertions that police threatened him, and defendant's background and history, to conclude that those factors caused an involuntary confession. Dr. Latimer did not state that an adjustment disorder made the confession involuntary. He did not cite any specific studies on false confessions. To the extent he relied on a factual basis to conclude the confession was involuntary, that was a credibility determination for the jury. The proposed testimony did not contain more insight than average jurors would possess through common knowledge when provided with the same facts to understand the position that death threats led defendant to falsely confess to preserve his life. (pp. 19-20)
4. Even if Dr. Latimer's proposed testimony would assist the trier of fact to understand that defendants sometimes give false confessions, Dr. Latimer conceded that the authorities on false confessions provided no insight into the scientific mechanism behind false confessions. Defendant did not establish that Dr. Latimer's testimony was in a field that is at a "state of the art" to be considered sufficiently reliable. Also, the proposed opinion of Dr. Latimer was more akin to the expert testimony disallowed in State v. Free (App. Div. 2002), and unlike the expert testimony in State v. King (App. Div. 2006). Here, defendant had no longstanding prior diagnosis of a mental disorder; instead, Dr. Latimer simply alluded to generalized notions of anxiety and fear. There is nothing exceptional about this case to require an expert to opine that defendant gave a false confession. The trial court properly exercised its discretion to exclude the proposed testimony. (pp. 21-26)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.
The issue before us is whether it was error to deny defendant Graciano Martinez Rosales' request to call a psychiatrist as an expert witness to testify that defendant's confession was not voluntary. Defendant was indicted for the death of the victim, based, in part, on his confession.
Defendant's motion to suppress his statement was denied. Prior to trial, defendant moved to present expert psychiatric testimony that, based on defendant's background and the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, he confessed to a crime he did not commit. The trial court denied the motion. A jury subsequently found defendant guilty. On appeal, defendant challenged the failure to permit his expert to testify that his statement was not voluntary. The Appellate Division affirmed. We granted defendant's petition for certification, State v. Rosales, 200 N.J. 475 (2009), and now affirm. We conclude that, on the record before the court, it was not an abuse of discretion to reject the expert's proposed testimony that defendant confessed to a crime he did not commit.
We summarize the pertinent facts necessary to decide this appeal. The indictment arose out of the stabbing death of Carolyn Arrington in July 2004. On August 5, 2004, the owner of an apartment building, located in Perth Amboy, discovered the dead body of Arrington in the basement and called the police. Lieutenant Phillip Terranova and other officers arrived to find the decomposing body of the victim. There was blood spatter throughout the basement.
Detective Steven Killane was assigned to lead the investigation. On August 7, 2004, Detective Killane returned to the building where the incident occurred and came upon Pedro Ventura. Ventura invited Detective Killane into his apartment. Once inside, the police observed a marijuana pipe in plain view and arrested Ventura. When questioned about the slain woman, Ventura admitted that several days earlier, he and defendant entered the basement to have sex with the victim. He stated that defendant argued with the victim, stabbed her, and placed the bloody knife in the garbage outside the building.
The next day, Detective Killane and three other officers visited defendant at his apartment on State Street in Perth Amboy. Defendant agreed to talk to the police and accompanied the officers to the police station. After the police read defendant his Miranda*fn1 rights, he signed a card acknowledging his waiver of those rights.*fn2 During an approximately thirty-minute interview, defendant denied involvement in the murder.
The police then asked defendant if he would agree to submit to a polygraph examination, and defendant said he would. Because the examiner was not available until the afternoon, defendant was given the option of going home or remaining at headquarters. Defendant chose to remain at headquarters.
At approximately 2:00 p.m., the police transported defendant to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, where the examination would take place. Prior to the polygraph examination, Sergeant Irma Alvarez issued defendant a second set of Miranda warnings. Defendant waived his rights and signed the Miranda card. Alvarez administered the polygraph examination from 5:11 p.m. to 5:43 p.m. Following the ...