Tuesday, May 7, 2013
To Frye or not to Frye,
that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind
to suffer the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against
a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.
Hamlet, Act III, by William Shakespeare
I write today to explain the Frye Rule and Mark O’Mara’s latest strategic mistake. Let’s begin with the mistake.
If Judge Nelson grants his motion, there will not be any testimony by an expert witness regarding the identity of the person who uttered the terrified shriek. That will not help the defense because that intense, high-pitched, and prolonged nightmarish shriek of sheer terror ends abruptly with the fatal gunshot to the heart.
Just as it does not take a weatherman to tell which direction the wind blows, no juror is going to have any difficulty figuring out that the person who uttered that inhuman shriek is the victim of that gunshot. No juror is going to believe that the person armed with the gun; who pulled it out of a holster; who extended his arm; who aimed the gun taking care to make sure his left hand was out of the way; and who pulled the trigger at point-blank range is the person who screamed.
I am certain the prosecutor will not forget to remind the jury that the defendant told the police that he kept screaming for help after the shot because he thought he missed Trayvon Martin.
Apparently, Mark O’Mara has not listened to that agonizing shriek because, if he had listened to it, he never would have filed this ridiculous motion that can only hurt his client, if Judge Nelson grants it, since the absence of expert testimony would simplify identifying Trayvon as the source of the shriek while also disproving the defendant’s claim that Trayvon was beating him to death and attempting to smother him when he fired the fatal shot.
Breath. Taking. Stupidity.
Now, let’s take a look at the Frye-hearing request.
Every once in awhile someone develops a new theory or a new way of performing some task (i.e., a new methodology). A lawyer finds out about it and decides he wants to apply that new theory or methodology to win a case. Opposing counsel says, “Not so fast, pal. Not without a Frye hearing.”
A Frye hearing is a pretrial hearing to determine if evidence obtained pursuant to a new theory or methodology should be admitted or excluded during the trial. Think of it as a judicial screening device to exclude potentially inaccurate and unreliable evidence based on a new untested theory or methodology.
We call it a Frye hearing because the first published case that dealt with this issue was Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir 1923). Judge Van Orsdell laid out the facts:
A single assignment of error is presented for our consideration. In the course of the trial counsel for defendant offered an expert witness to testify to the result of a deception test made upon defendant. The test is described as the systolic blood pressure deception test. It is asserted that blood pressure is influenced by change in the emotions of the witness, and that the systolic blood pressure rises are brought about by nervous impulses sent to the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Scientific experiments, it is claimed, have demonstrated that fear, rage, and pain always produce a rise of systolic blood pressure, and that conscious deception or falsehood, concealment of facts, or guilt of crime, accompanied by fear of detection when the person is under examination, raises the systolic blood pressure in a curve, which corresponds exactly to the struggle going on in the subject’s mind, between fear and attempted control of that fear, as the examination touches the vital points in respect of which he is attempting to deceive the examiner.
In other words, the theory seems to be that truth is spontaneous, and comes without conscious effort, while the utterance of a falsehood requires a conscious effort, which is reflected in the blood pressure. The rise thus produced is easily detected and distinguished from the rise produced by mere fear of the examination itself. In the former instance, the pressure rises higher than in the latter, and is more pronounced as the examination proceeds, while in the latter case, if the subject is telling the truth, the pressure registers highest at the beginning of the examination, and gradually diminishes as the examination proceeds.
Prior to the trial defendant was subjected to this deception test, and counsel offered the scientist who conducted the test as an expert to testify to the results obtained. The offer was objected to by counsel for the government, and the court sustained the objection. Counsel for defendant then offered to have the proffered witness conduct a test in the presence of the jury. This also was denied.
Judge Van Orsdell then proceeded to define the new rule:
The rule is that the opinions of experts or skilled witnesses are admissible in evidence in those cases in which the matter of inquiry is such that inexperienced persons are unlikely to prove capable of forming a correct judgment upon it, for the reason that the subject-matter so far partakes of a science, art, or trade as to require a previous habit or experience or study in it, in order to acquire a knowledge of it. When the question involved does not lie within the range of common experience or common knowledge, but requires special experience or special knowledge, then the opinions of witnesses skilled in that particular science, art, or trade to which the question relates are admissible in evidence.
Numerous cases are cited in support of this rule. Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrable stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well-recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.
We think the systolic blood pressure deception test has not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities as would justify the courts in admitting expert testimony deduced from the discovery, development, and experiments thus far made.
The issue Judge Nelson would have to decide, assuming she decides to hold a Frye hearing, is whether the methodologies used by the state’s experts are generally accepted by audiologists as capable of producing accurate and reliable results.
The Frye test has been described as a counting-heads test because it does not require the judge to understand the theory or methodology at issue. The judge need only count the heads of the experts in the particular field and decide whether they generally accept the methodology.
As I recall, two experts used different methodologies to compare the shriek to a voice exemplar provided by the defendant. One methodology has been used for many years and the other one, which was developed recently, involves the use of a software program.
Both experts have excluded the defendant as the source of the scream.
Since the first method has been used for many years, it probably has survived a Frye challenge in Florida.
The second method may be too new to have been challenged at a Frye hearing.
The glaring, and I believe fatal, omission in O’Mara’s motion for a Frye hearing is the absence of any supporting affidavits from experts in audiology that one or both of the methodologies used are not generally accepted by audiologists as capable of producing accurate and reliable results.
Nobody gives a damn about what the non-expert lawyer thinks. He is not qualified to express an opinion about general acceptance of these methodologies.
Therefore, I would deny his motion for a Frye hearing.
Notice that regardless whether Judge Nelson grants or denies O’Mara’s motion, the State will still be required to lay a proper foundation for each of its expert audiologists at trial pursuant to Evidence Rule 702 that the witness is a duly qualified expert in the field and the result obtained using the particular methodology in question will assist the jury to decide who is screaming.
In conclusion, if I were the prosecutor, I would be inclined to try the case without putting on any audiologists during my case-in-chief for the simple reason that I do not believe they are necessary. This is another illustration of the KISS rule.
BTW, all that sparring about whether Tracy Martin could identify Trayvon as the source of the shriek does not matter.
Hardly anyone ever shrieks like that and lives to tell about it, so it stands to reason that no one, including his father, ever heard Trayvon utter a shriek like that. This may explain why it may not be possible for any expert to positively identify the source of the shriek without considering the circumstances or context that produced it.
That’s why it sounds inhuman.
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