Michigan v. Kowalski

Brief Filed: 9/11
Court: Michigan Supreme Court
Year of Decision: 2012

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 126KB)

Issue

At issue before the court is the reliability and relevance of expert testimony on false confessions

Index Topic

False Confessions

Facts

The Michigan Supreme Court accepted the case of Michigan v. Kowalski to address whether appellant’s constitutional right to present a defense will be violated if he is precluded from calling expert witnesses at his trial for first-degree murder 1) to dispel the common misperception that a person would not confess to a crime he did not commit, and 2) to explain the psychological and personality factors that made appellant suggestible to police interrogation.

Kowalski is charged with murdering his brother and sister-in-law in 2008. Each was found in their home and had suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Kowalski faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted as charged. During the course of interviews with police officers, Kowalski made numerous incriminating statements, ultimately confessing to the murders. He was charged with the crimes; thereafter, he moved to suppress the incriminating statements claiming that his statements were involuntary. He submitted a notice of intent to introduce expert testimonies of two psychologists stating that they would give expert testimony concerning false confessions. Plaintiff moved to suppress proffered expert testimony, arguing that it was inadmissible under MRE 702 (state regulation that governs admissibility of expert testimony) and Daubert. After the Daubert hearing, during which both experts testified, the trial court ruled that the proposed testimony of both was not admissible. The trial court reasoned that proposed testimony was not reliable because it was not the product of proper principles and methodologies. They held that the methodology used was unreliable and highly questionable because it did not include objective and verifiable criteria. The court also concluded that expert testimony proposed was not outside the common knowledge of a layperson and, therefore, would not assist the jury. The Court of Appeals, in a divided panel, affirmed the trial court’s findings. The Michigan Supreme Court accepted the case for review on March 25, 2011.

At the time of this request, APA had already filed five briefs in various state courts presenting the research on risk factors for false confessions — which included peer reviewed articles, book chapters, etc., as well as a summary of the research published as a white paper by Division 41.

APA's Position

On Nov. 3, 2011, APA filed an amicus brief stating that the scientific research on false confessions provides a strong empirical foundation for the admission of expert testimony on the subject and that it should be admitted as evidence under the Daubert standard for expert testimony — primarily that this body of research was conducted in accordance with scientific principles and methodologies that are well-established within the profession.

Results

On July 30, 2012, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a mixed ruling in State v. Kowalski. In principal part, the decision holds that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the proposed expert testimony regarding the published literature on false confessions. The opinion stated that while the testimony was relevant, the circuit court’s determination that the testimony was unreliable was not “outside the range of principled outcomes.” As to as second expert who was going to testify as to Mr. Kowalski’s psychological profile, the court held that it was an abuse of discretion to have excluded his testimony because the court failed to consider the psychological testing evidence separately from the expert testimony involving the false confession literature. The court remanded to the circuit court for examination of that issue. Finally, the court held that the exclusion of the experts’ testimony did not violate Mr. Kowalski’s constitutional right to present a defense.

The decision occasioned a concurring opinion and a dissenting opinion, which simply took issue with the court’s conclusion that the testimony on false confessions was relevant. The silver lining is the court’s holding that expert testimony on false confessions assists jurors in understanding the existence of false confessions, including how and why a defendant might falsely confess. The court affirmed that “expert testimony bearing on the manner in which a confession is obtained and how a defendant’s psychological makeup may have affected the defendant’s statements is beyond the understanding of the average juror and may be relevant to the reliability and credibility of a confession.” Notably the court also found that it was pertinent in this case that the confession had been videotaped, which allowed the jury a more direct basis to assess the conditions under which the confession occurred and therefore minimized the need for expert testimony.