Expert Witnesses in Family Violence Cases

Expert testimony is a crucial part of any trial argument. An Expert witnesses’ goal is to will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. TEX. R. EVID. 702. In Texas, an expert witness is a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education who may form an opinion based on that specialized knowledge. Id. Before admitting expert testimony, a court must determine that the witness is qualified; and that the subject of the testimony is appropriate to the expert’s testimony. Vela v. State, 209 S.W.3d 128, 131 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006).

In family violence cases, expert witnesses may be introduced concerning the dynamics of a relationship involving family and/or domestic violence. See Fielder v. State, 756 S.W.2d 309,319-21 (Tex. Crim. App. 1988). Courts have specifically permitted the use of expert testimony on the cycle of family violence to help juries understand a victim’s delay in reporting domestic violence and recanting a report of abuse. Witnesses from a variety of backgrounds have been allowed to testify as experts regarding family violence. See, e.g., Brewer, 370 S.W.3d at 474 (allowing a counselor in family violence section of a police department. Courts have allowed police officers to testify as to the behavior of victims of family violence. Dixon, 244 S.W3d at 480. Courts have allowed social workers at women’s shelters to testify about the cycle of violence and family therapists about the control batterers have over their victims.

In the subsequent case, I discuss why a court allowed a practicing nurse to testify as an expert witness in a family violence case.

Registered Nurse as Expert Witness

In this case, the trial court conducted an inquiry into Wolf’s qualifications to testify as an expert witness. The trial court heard that the witness was a registered nurse and a board-certified woman’s health nurse care practitioner, as well as a sexual assault nurse examiner, and an educator in the field of family violence. The trial court also heard testimony regarding her practical experience working with patients, which began in 1994 when she was working as a nurse in the emergency room. As a forensic nurse and sexual assault nurse examiner, she stated that she had seen over 250 cases of family violence. From that experience, she was able to identify definite patterns including the power and control wheel and the cycle of violence. Because of her extensive experience, the court admitted her as an expert witness.

The defense, however, saw it differently.

Defense Objects to Lack of Qualifications

On appeal, the appellant objected to the nurse testifying as an expert due to her lack of qualifications. Her experience as a nurse exposed her to accounts of sexual abuse and domestic violence but that her testimony would harm the defendant’s rights because she had never testified as an expert.

Court of Appeals affirmed the Trial Court’s decision

In her testimony before the jury, the expert testified that she had specialized knowledge in understanding evidence regarding trauma family violence. How batterers, as in the defendant’s case, tend to isolate their victims and control their access to resources, some of which include their telephones and vehicle. She explained why victims of family violence act in ways that can seem irrational, such as not attempting to escape their abuser or denying that an act of abused occurred. Lastly, the court held that because the expert did not know about the facts of the case, and her testimony was used to educate the jury on matters of family violence, her testimony did not harm the appellant and she was deemed qualified as an expert.

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