New Trial Required in Suit Alleging Deputy Coerced Confession of Sexual Assault
Majority Says Judge Erred in Excluding Expert Testimony
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ordered a new trial in an action against the County of Los Angeles and a sheriff’s deputy by a certified nursing assistant who claims the deputy exacted from him a coerced confession to a sexual assault on a patient, with the majority holding that the exclusion of testimony by an expert on coerced confessions was prejudial error.
Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote for herself and Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia. Circuit Judge Eric D. Miller dissented.
The Ninth Circuit previously reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of Deputy Deputy Carlos Vega. It held on Jan. 15, 2021 that District Court Judge George H. Wu of the Central District of California erred in declining to instruct the jury that it should find in favor of plaintiff Terence Tekoha, in his civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. §1983, if it found that the confession used at his criminal trial (at which he was acquited) was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2022, reversed that decision, saying in the majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito: “We now reject this extension of our Miranda case law.”
Exclusion of Testimony
On Friday, the Ninth Circuit’s majority declared that Wu erred in excluding the testimony of Iris Blandón-Gitlin, a professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton. Wardlaw explained:
“The district court incorrectly concluded that Dr. Blandon-Gitlin’s testimony would impermissibly vouch for or buttress Tekoh’s credibility. Her testimony, however, was not that Tekoh was credible, but ‘assum[ing] the veracity’ of Tekoh’s claims, she concluded that Deputy Vega used these coercive tactics. Expert testimony that corroborates a witness’s testimony is not a credibility assessment or improper buttressing, even if it implicitly lends support to that person’s testimony.”
“[T]he expert’s proposed testimony was not simply about false confessions, but the coercive questioning tactics that lead to them. Dr. Blandon-Gitlin’s testimony would help the jury better understand coerced confessions, including wiry just asking questions can be coercive, issues that are beyond a layperson’s understanding and not necessarily obvious, even in these circumstances.”
“The jury had to decide who was telling the truth about the circumstances of Tekoh’s interrogation by Deputy Vega: Tekoh or Vega. The proffered expert testimony of Dr. Blandon-Gitlin would not have been helpful to the jury in making that decision, so the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding it.”
“In this case, no specialized understanding was necessary to assess the evidence of the alleaedlv coercive interrogation. As the district court explained, ‘this matter came down to a question of credibility’—if the jury believed Tekoh’s account of the interrogation, then it would have been obvious that ‘the confession was indeed coerced.’ Tekoh said that when he tried to leave the room. Vega rushed at him. stepped on his toes, and threatened. “I’m about to put your black ass where it belongs, about to hand you over to deportation services, and you and your entire family will be rounded up and sent back to the jungle.’ According to Tekoh, Vega then ordered him to sit down, handed him a pen and paper, and dictated a confession for him to write. When Tekoh hesitated, Vega allegedly put his hand on his gun. It does not take an expert to see how that would have been coercive.”
The case is Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, 18-56414.
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