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Legal News
Jury Still Out on Impact of Expert-Testimony Ruling
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 2 page 13-13

New York State's highest court overturned the high-profile conviction of the man with schizophrenia who murdered Kendra Webdale by pushing her in front of a subway train in 1999.

The decision, which was handed down last month in the case The People v. Andrew Goldstein, challenged the use of a psychiatrist's third-party testimony for the prosecution. The psychiatrist had used interviews with the defendant's acquaintances, former landlord, and roommate to conclude Goldstein's mental health problems were not the cause of his actions. The defense maintained that acute symptoms of his previously diagnosed schizophrenia prevented him from knowing that his actions were wrong.

New York's Court of Appeals ruled that Goldstein's rights were violated because the psychiatrist used descriptions of interviews with four people who knew him to support her opinion, but Goldstein was not given the opportunity to confront them. The interviews helped lead the psychiatrist to conclude that Goldstein was a "predator, driven to acts of violence against women by feelings of rejection and sexual frustration, who was using his schizophrenia as an excuse for his actions," according to the ruling. The court supported Goldstein's right to confront the interviewees in court and ordered a new trial.

"This levels the playing field between prosecution and defense," said Spencer Eth, M.D., who testified for the defense." It's a challenge for the expert to convince the jury that the mental illness is the reason for [the defendant's] behavior."

Eth is a professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College.

The high court's ruling against psychiatrists' use of third-party testimony without in-person testimony may encourage psychiatrists to rely solely upon clinical records and patient examinations to assess the defendant's responsibility for his actions, he told Psychiatric News.

The third-person interviews that the prosecution's forensic psychiatrist used supplemented an examination of the defendant. Among those she interviewed was a girlfriend of a former roommate who described teasing Goldstein and who strongly resembled the victim. Another interviewee, a security guard who previously restrained the defendant after he had attacked another woman, said Goldstein immediately described himself as "a schizophrenic" who needed help, according to the court ruling.

Phillip Resnick, M.D., director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, took a position different from Eth's. Resnick told Psychiatric News that forensic psychiatrists commonly use third-party interviews to assess a defendant's mental state and relay them in court testimony, especially in "big stakes" cases in which serious crimes and potentially major sentences are involved.

Howard Zonana, M.D., medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) and a member of APA's Committee on Judicial Action, described interviews of "collateral sources" by forensic psychiatrists assessing the mental state of criminal defendants as" standard practice." AAPL's document "Forensic Psychiatric Guidelines for Evaluation of Defendants Raising the Insanity Defense" describes the procedures for interviewing collateral sources as part of the patient evaluation.

Zonana noted that courts vary on how they allow that testimony in court. The significance of third-party interviews in the forensic psychiatrist's evaluation varies on a case-by-case basis. Barring the description of those interviews in testimony could have a big impact in some cases.

"They would just have to say, `This is my assessment, and I can't tell you why that is my conclusion,' because it is based in part on those third-party interviews," Zonana said.

Resnick said he was comforted that the New York court required only those associates of Goldstein whose interviews the psychiatrist described in court to also testify. The ruling did not bar the use of the third-party interviews in a psychiatrist's professional opinion of the mental state of a defendant at the time a crime was committed. Most criminal cases require forensic psychiatrists to testify to their opinion, rather than submit a written report, because such reports could be demanded in their entirety by juries. Juries may focus on aspects of the report that either the prosecution or defense did not intend.

The ruling said the jury was unlikely to make the subtle distinction that the psychiatrist's description of the third-party interviews was only to assess his mental state and not meant as separate evidence of his guilt.

The state had not announced as of press time whether it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or follow the state court's direction and retry Goldstein, who remains incarcerated. If he is tried again, it will be for the third time. In his first trial, the jury deadlocked on the issue of insanity.

Webdale's murder led New York to pass a law now popularly known as" Kendra's Law," which mandates outpatient psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness.

The decision in the The People v. Andrew Goldstein [2005 NY Slip Op 09654] is posted at<www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2005/2005_09654.htm>.

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