Psychologist’s Testimony that the Defendant Faked Mental Condition Prompts Supreme Court Appeal

“Is a psychologist’s trial testimony about a defendant’s allegedly feigned mental illness admissible during the state’s case-in-chief (the part of a trial where the party with the burden of proof presents its evidence) to show the defendant’s intent to mislead and defraud authorities to escape prosecution?”

That was the issue facing the Ohio Supreme Court last Tuesday in hearing the case of Joseph Harris, charged in a four-count indictment on October 29, 2010 of aggravated murder, murder, aggravated  robbery, and having a weapon while  under disability, to which he plead not guilty by reason of insanity but was found  competent to stand trial.

A jury found him guilty as charged and the trial court sentenced him to concurrent terms  on the aggravated Murder (life without the possibility of parole), murder (merged with Count 1), eight years for aggravated robbery’ and five years on the  weapon under disability count, along with the consecutive, mandatory three-year term on a gun specification.

Appealing the case, the First District Court of Appeals in a Per Curiam  decision reversed his conviction due to the testimony of a court psychologist during the court's case-in-chief, which the state here appealed, stating:

   “R.C. 2945.371(J) provides in part: "No statement that a defendant makes in an evaluation* * * relating to * * * the defendant's mental condition at the time of the offense charged shall be used against the defendant on the issue of guilt in any criminal action or proceeding, but, in a criminal action or proceeding, the prosecutor or defense counsel may call as a witness any person who evaluated the defendant or prepared a report pursuant to a referral under this section." The latter sentence was not included in a prior version of the statute, R.C. 2945.39(D).

    “…the psychologist who interviewed Harris during a competency and sanity evaluation, testified during the state's case-in-chief. She did not ever reveal any statement made by Harris, and madeno reference to any of the facts of the case. She testified solely about the fact that Harris feigned mental illness during the examination. This testimony corroborated the testimony of two inmates who were incarcerated at the same time as Harris prior to his trial. The court held that the state was prohibited from using Dr. Dreyer's testimony to bolster other witnesses' testimony in any fashion, solely because the psychologist's opinion resulted from her discussions with Harris…” (Memorandum in support of jurisdiction filed by State of Ohio on March 15, 2013) 

Case docket of State of Ohio v. Joseph Harris, 2013-0414