United States v. Christian

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 04-17-2014
  • Case #: 12-10202
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Fisher for the Court; Circuit Judge Berzon; Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Circuit Judge Alarcón
  • Full Text Opinion

A district court abuses it discretion by not considering whether expert testimony would have been relevant and helpful to the jury in determining a defendant's diminished capacity defense.

Eric Leon Christian was charged with two counts of transmitting, through interstate commerce, email communications containing threats to injure others. Christian tried to use the defense of diminished capacity, as evidenced by the testimony of an expert witness who evaluated his competency to stand trial for an unrelated state court proceeding. The district court excluded the expert testimony on the sole basis that the Christian’s expert examined him for competency, as opposed to diminished capacity. On appeal, Christian argued that he was incapable of the specific intent required by the charged offense. The Ninth Circuit held that instead of focusing exclusively on the legal standards governing the conclusions the expert was asked to draw, the district court should have determined whether the expert’s testimony would have been relevant and helpful to the jury in evaluating Christian’s diminished capacity defense. The panel stated that the district court overlooked the psychological test results underlying the opinion in terms of whether they would have helped the jury decide whether Christian had the capacity to form the specific intent to threaten, when he sent the emails at issue. The panel also held that the district court’s error was not harmless because it prevented Christian from providing an evidentiary basis for his defense, which removes his ability to retain a jury instruction on diminished capacity. Additionally, the panel extended the holding of Estate of Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc., to require “a new trial when a district court erroneously admits prejudicial expert testimony” in a criminal, as well as a civil trial. VACATED and REMANDED.

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