United States v. Kristiansen
901 F.2d 1463 (1990)

  • Kristiansen was in a halfway house.  He left one day to visit his wife, and called in later claiming to be too sick to come back.  After 6 days the police went to his wife’s house and arrested him.  He was charged with escaping from custody.
  • At trial, Kristiansen argued that he was a cocaine addict and lacked the mental faculties to have any willful intent to escape.
    • Kristiansen offered an expert witness (Knowles) who testified that Kristiansen was psychotic and under the influence of drugs at the time of his escape. Kristiansen asked Knowles if an individual in Kristiansen’s mental state would have the ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of their acts?
      • The prosecution objected to the testimony on the grounds that it required the expert witness to comment on Kristiansen’s mental state.
  • The Trial Judge excluded the testimony about Kristiansen’s mental state.
  • On cross-examination, the prosecution asked Knowles if Kristiansen was “legally accountable for his acts?”
    • Kristiansen did not object.  Instead he argued that he should be allowed to ask his previously disallowed questions
  • The Trial Court found Kristiansen guilty of escape.  He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court found that Knowles’ testimony had been improperly excluded.
    • The Appellate Court found that under FRE 704(b), a mental health expert is prohibited from offering an opinion as to whether a defendant possessed the required mental state at the time of their crime.
      • Basically, you can ask an expert witness whether a person was suffering from a mental disease or defect at the time of the crime, but you could not ask if the person was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of their actions.
    • The Appellate Court found that Kristiansen should have been allowed to ask Knowles if Kristiansen’s mental problems could have caused him not to appreciate the wrongfulness of their acts.
      • Knowles couldn’t testify to what Kristiansen’s mental state actually was, but he could offer expert testimony that people with those mental problems often do not appreciate the wrongfulness of their acts.
      • However, the Appellate Court found that this was harmless error.
    • The Appellate Court noted that the prosecution should not have been allowed to ask Knowles the question they did on cross-examination, but Kristiansen failed to object, so the Appellate Court couldn’t do anything about that.