Friday, February 8, 2013


Medical Testimony Can Be the Key in Criminal Defense Cases*

What may seem like an open and shut case on the surface can have surprising results, especially once all of the facts are presented. Take for instance a recent case in which the defendant was charged with vehicular homicide after he and a co-worker were involved in a car accident resulting in the co-worker's death.
Both the defendant, who was driving the work truck, and the co-worker, who was sitting in the passenger seat, had been drinking prior to the accident. The defendant lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree. On the surface, someone might assume that the passenger's death occurred because the driver had been drinking and caused the accident - or in legal parlance, but for the defendant operating a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol, the accident would not have happened and the victim would still be alive.
However, this would be a premature conclusion. What actually happened in this case is that the victim's death was attributable to his own negligence because his death was caused by crush injuries sustained after the cargo that he improperly secured shifted during the accident. But the criminal defense attorney in this case had to jump through several legal hoops to get evidence of the victim's negligence admitted at trial.

New York's Dead Man's Statute and Expert Witness Evidentiary Rules

Proving that the cause of the victim's death was attributable to his failure to correctly secure the cargo rather than the driver's intoxication could have presented a special problem under New York's rules of evidence.
The only two people in the car, and quite possibly the only two witnesses to the victim improperly securing the cargo, were the defendant and the victim. Under New York's "Dead Man's Statute" (CPLR §4519), personal transactions or communications with a person who has since died or become incapacitated (for example, in a coma or otherwise unable to communicate) cannot be used at trial by an interested party.
In this case, that would preclude the defendant (the driver of the truck) from testifying in court to anything the victim said while loading the truck or before the accident that might help prove the driver was not liable for the victim's death. In order for such testimony to be admissible at trial, a third party, or disinterested party, would have had to witness the conversation in order to testify about it before the court.

However, under an important exception to the Dead Man's Statute, the driver may have been able to testify to the deceased victim's actions. The exception permits otherwise interested witnesses, in this case the defendant driver, to testify to the facts of an accident resulting from the negligent operation of a motor vehicle. So in this case, the driver may have been able to testify that he witnessed the passenger load the cargo. But just witnessing the victim loading the cargo would not necessarily exculpate the defendant.
So how to prove the driver was not at-fault for the victim's death?

In this particular case, medical expert witness testimony was the best defense to prove the driver was not guilty of vehicular homicide. During the trial, a medical expert witness testified that the fatal injury causing the victim's death was not caused by frontal trauma to the head from the impact with the tree. Instead, the fatal injury was caused by blunt force trauma to the back of the head, consistent with the impact of the shifting cargo load.

Under New York's Rules of Evidence, the medical expert was unable to directly testify that the victim's cause of death was not the result of the driver's intoxication. Evidentiary rules prevent expert witnesses from basing their opinions on speculation and conjecture - their testimony only can be based on fact.

Generally, the rules of evidence also prohibit witnesses from stating an opinion on an ultimate issue of fact - or, in other words, from giving an opinion on an issue the jury is responsible for deciding. In this case, that would be whether the victim's death was attributable to vehicular homicide committed by the defendant.
Again, this would prevent the medical expert from testifying affirmatively that the defendant was not responsible for the victim's death. Instead, the medical expert testified as to his opinion of the victim's cause of death based on medical evidence, which showed his death was caused by the crush injuries from the truck's shifting cargo.

Expert testimony, particularly medical expert testimony, often is a vital component in criminal defense cases. The rules of evidence place many restrictions on what a witness may or may not testify to, which can complicate cases and make it that much harder to present evidence to the jury.
An attorney experienced in handling criminal defense cases understands when expert testimony should be used and how it may help your case. For more information on defending against criminal charges, contact J John Sebastian today.

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