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Sociologists as Expert Witnesses in the Criminal Justice System

by Lewis Yablonsky, Emeritus Professor of Criminology, California State University-Northridge

In general, the role of an expert-witness in the criminal justice system has been defined as a person who has some special training or experience, and ideally can help the judge, lawyers, and jury arrive at the truth in the judicial process. In the past, the role has been mainly limited to such professionals as psychiatrists, physicians, and engineers.

In the last decade, however, there has been a broader acceptance of professional expert-witnesses in the courts, and it is my viewpoint that more sociologists can and should participate in the process from their special area of expertise in human behavior. In the courts, where the behavior and responsibility of a defendant is being determined by lawyers, judges, and juries, any theory of human behavior concept that is presented to explain the event needs to make sense in relationship to the incident on trial or it will be eliminated by the adversarial system.

In this context, it has been my experience as a sociologically-oriented criminologist that participation by sociologists in the justice system not only contributes to the judicial process but hones some of our grand and short-range theories to comport more closely with the reality of social behavior.

Although my experience in around 75 court cases, mainly in California (but also in NY, FL, and AZ) has been primarily in criminal cases involving homicide, violence, and gangs—I would suggest that sociologists specializing in other social problems, such as deviance or family problems, could aid in the judicial process by testifying in related cases.

The following brief examples of my work as a criminologist and expert witness hopefully illustrates the role a sociologically trained person can enact in the courts; and might point the way for other sociologists to participate in the justice system from their special area of sociological knowledge.

The foundation for my work as an expert-witness in homicide and gang cases is based on my professional experience and research as delineated in several of my books especially Gangsters (NYU Press, 1997); and Juvenile Delinquency (Wadsworth, 2000), and in the work of other sociologists whose theories have practical value in the judicial process. In the following review of several cases I have worked on I will demonstrate how certain theories were useful in presenting my opinions in court; and I will focus on the criminological and sociological theories and data that led me to reach my opinions about the criminal incident being adjudicated.

A Hells Angel’s Gang Murder
I was consulted about the structure and behavior of gangs in 1972 by a San Francisco public defender attempting to acquire a new trial for a man serving a life sentence in San Quentin for 1st degree murder. He was a member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle gang convicted of homicide—essentially on the evidence of several dead bodies buried on his property. He sought a new trial claiming he had not murdered anyone and that his “brother” gang members in the Hell’s Angels had coerced him into pleading guilty and taking the punishment for the real murderers whom he knew. He was unhappy in prison, and now wanted a new trial.

My research into the case revealed that the man was essentially telling the truth, and did not testify against the real murderers out of fear for his life. My opinions were based on my research into the norms and culture of motorcycle gangs in general and the Hell’s Angels in particular. In my opinion the case hinged on the perverse but controlling norm of “gang loyalty” that “thou shalt not snitch” on your “friends.” I was prepared to present my opinions in this regard to facilitate a new trial for the individual. Prior to a new trial taking place the gangster backed out from proceeding because of new threats from the gang on his life.

The Prosecution of Two Gangster Defendants Involved in the Attempted Murder of Reginald Denney During the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
In 1993 I was engaged by the Los Angeles County Prosecutor’s Office as an expert witness in what became known as the “Reginald Denney Trial.” The trial took place in the wake of the 1992 LA riots, which were fueled by a verdict that acquitted several LA police officers who had allegedly beaten Rodney King.

The trial involved two gang members, who were accused of violence against truck driver, Reginald Denney, at the heart of where the 1992 LA riots began. The defense, through the testimony of a UCLA professor as an expert witness, contended that the defendants were not responsible for their violent actions because they were victims of the “group-contagion” of the riots. The expert-witness for the defense based his theory of their violent behavior on the book written by sociologist Gustave LeBon in 1899 entitled The Crowd. The book posited that people in the heat of a mob action were heavily influenced by the emotional climate. On this basis the defense attorneys were asserting that their clients were not responsible for their criminal behavior.

As a rebuttal expert-witness for the prosecution, I testified that even in an emotional mob situation individuals are responsible for their illegal behavior. On the basis of my research into group dynamics of criminal behavior at the scene of the crime, it was my opinion that when the violence began, most of the people present left the area; a few curious people stayed on to watch the violence; and only a few individuals, including the defendants committed violent acts. I further stated that the two defendants, given their prior gang socialization were predisposed to be violent and seized on the riot situation, as a cloak of immunity, to displace their pre-existent rage on Denney, an innocent victim of their violent proclivities. I testified that the theory of “group contagion” was irrelevant to the defendants’ violent behavior, and that their role as gangsters, which preceded the riots was their motivation for brutally assaulting Reginald Denney. After an extensive trial the defendants were convicted for their violent crimes.

A Death Penalty Gang Murder Case Involving the Sentencing Phase of the Trial
In 1997, two opposing factions met in a “crack-house” in Tucson to consummate a drug deal. One faction was comprised of three individuals with an affiliation with the LA Crips, and the opposing two individuals were affiliated with the LA Bloods gang. The LA Crips and Bloods were long-term enemy gangs. There was apparently a major unanticipated misunderstanding between the factions. In a grim comedy of errors resulting in two brutal murders, all participants had money to buy drugs, and no one had drugs to sell.

My analysis of the murky court testimony and my interview with one of the perpetrators revealed that a conflict ensued with guns being pulled to threaten each other. The scenario was unclear, however, the Blood’s twosome gained control of the situation. In fear of their life, then or at a later time involving a reprisal, they apparently decided to kill the three members of the opposing group.

They bound their three “enemies” with duct-tape, put them in two cars, and drove to a remote area outside of the city. They then placed the three face down on the ground and shot each of them in turn in the back of their head. Two died immediately. The one surviving victim had an Afro haircut. Either the shooter had poor aim or miscalculated because of the haircut and the bullet grazed the survivor’s head;he lived to be the main witness in the homicide case, where the shooters were convicted of 1st degree murder.

I was hired by the defense attorneys for one of the defendants in the sentencing phase of the trial to develop, whether there were any “mitigating factors” for aiding the convicted felon avoiding the death penalty. Only two outcomes were possible—execution or life imprisonment. After reviewing the evidence, and interviewing the defendant, who I will call Ed, I reached several conclusions about his participation in the homicide—and possible factors that would mitigate against his receiving the death penalty.

Our interview progressed he became more loquacious and forthcoming in revealing his life story and his version of the events that placed him in his current situation. In brief, he came from a prototypical dysfunctional family. One element of his family problems that is noteworthy is that he was trouble-free and non-gang involved until the age of ten. As he told me, he was staying at his grandmother’s house when a police officer arrived to report that his stepfather had brutally murdered his mother by stabbing her 17 times. According to Ed, shortly after the murder of his mother, feeling totally depressed and that he was now alone, he began to participate in the gang world by joining the Bloods.

My opinions for mitigating testimony were partially based on Marvin Wolfgang’s widely accepted sociological theory of “Victim-Precipitated-Homicide.” Simply stated, in many gang violent interactions it is often difficult to ascertain who will wind-up as the perpetrator and who will become the victim. The initial victim of a violent act, often in self-defense, winds up as the assailant. In this case, Ed and his partner, after being initially attacked by the three opposing individuals apparently acquired the upper hand and gained control of the situation. Now in charge, and fearing the deadly possibility that if the three who ultimately became their victims were released from their control, they would return to kill them. They felt, according to Ed, in the context of gang culture, that it was incumbent on them to eliminate their perceived enemies. In this context, in some respects, Ed’s murderous actions were mitigated as a slim form of self-defense.

My opinions, based on 50 years of research into gangs, revealed that very often in a gang conflict, like the one that apparently occurred between the two warring factions, the situation disintegrates into a “kill or be killed” scenario.

In my testimony in court, in addition to gang culture as a possible mitigating factor in the sentencing of Ed, I stated that his response in the situation was in the context of “Imperfect Self-Defense” as defined by California Law (CALJIC 5.17.) This law, under the heading “Honest But Unreasonable Belief in Necessity to Defend: Manslaughter” states, in part:

“A person who kills another person in the honest but unreasonable belief in the necessity to defend against imminent peril to life or great bodily injury, kills unlawfully, but does not harbor malice aforethought and is not guilty of [first degree] murder.” These varied opinions and my testimony on Ed’s unfortunate family history helped to mitigate the death sentence confronting Ed to a life sentence.

In brief, social-psychological expert opinions properly presented in court can aid the judicial system in the determination of more rational and just verdicts. Testimony by knowledgeable sociologists in the role of expert-witnesses on the realities of social phenomenon can be helpful in the rendering of a more equitable and judicious decision in a criminal trial. Although my “expertise” is more narrowly focused on gangs and violence, I believe that there is a role for sociologists utilizing a range of sociological theories in the courts. The more extensive utilization of sociologists as expert-witnesses in the judicial process could make the courts more equitable in terms of justice, and result in strengthening the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.