Social Worker Expert’s Opinion on PTSD Diagnosis Deemed Out of Scope

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on May 11, 2021

Social Worker Expert’s Opinion on PTSD Diagnosis Deemed Out of Scope

Court: Supreme Court of Mississippi
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Hutto v. State
Citation: 2017 Miss. LEXIS 180

In this criminal trial, the defendant pursues a commuted sentence. He alleges the trial court threw out mitigating evidence by excluded portions of his social worker expert’s testimony. In particular, the defendant asserts the expert should have been permitted to diagnose PTSD and recommend treatment.

The court disagrees. The defendant cites previous cases permitting PTDS diagnoses. However, the court rules otherwise. The court maintains that the social worker expert, though qualified in social work, is not qualified to diagnose medical conditions.

Facts

The defendant stopped at an inn where he met the 81-year-old deceased. The pair allegedly went out for dinner and to a casino. The defendant later returned to the inn alone in the deceased’s car. He checked out shortly afterward and returned to his home. Investigators later found the deceased’s body in a field halfway between the inn and the casino.

Law enforcement arrested the defendant while driving the victim’s car. Investigators also found the victim’s bloodstains on the defendant’s shoes. The state successfully prosecuted the defendant for capital murder and sentenced him to death. The defendant presented a social worker expert witness to present testimony that could mitigate his capital punishment.

The Defendant’s Social Worker Expert Witness

The defendant argued for a commuted sentence. He claimed that the trial court excluded mitigating evidence from his social worker expert witness. During the mitigation process, the defense presented this expert witness. The social worker expert witness held a Ph.D. in social work. Her work particularly focused on the field of human development.

Defense counsel did not disclose this expert to the state in due time. As a result, the judge conducted the expert’s proffer. This also allowed the prosecution to prepare for cross examination. The judge acknowledged the expert was an authority in social work, human development, and behavior. During the proffer, the social worker expert affirmed that the defendant had never been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the expert also asserted that she observed symptoms indicating the defendant did actually suffer from PTSD. The social worker expert also argued that the defendant required treatment, including psychoeducation and counseling.

After hearing the expert’s opinions, the judge concluded she could not speak to the jury on a psychological diagnosis or treatment plan. The judge explained these views were beyond the scope of her social work expertise. The expert was permitted to testify on the effects of traumatic events from the defendant’s childhood.

Discussion

The defendant argued his expert’s testimony was unfairly curbed. To support his claim that the social worker expert was qualified to speak about diagnosis and treatment, the defendant cited Fulgham v. State and Pickett v. State. The court found the present case to be easily distinguishable from both Fulgham and Pickett. It explained that in Fulgham, a psychiatrist, not a social worker, had testified about the defendant’s PTSD. Further, in Pickett, a licensed social worker had diagnosed the defendant with PTSD. However, there was also no evidence showing the social worker was a licensed clinician.

The majority bench concluded that the defendant failed to demonstrate how the social worker expert was qualified to diagnose or recommend treatment for PTSD.

Ruling

Upon review, it was held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the social worker expert’s opinion on the defendant’s PTSD diagnosis.

Key Takeaways for Experts

Here, the defendant claims an expert’s testimony could assist in lessening his sentence. The court, however, deems the testimony is out of the expert’s scope. Experts should carefully consider if their qualifications adequately support their conclusions. In this case, the court threw out potentially case-altering testimony. This is an extremely high-stakes example of the importance for expert testimony to remain in an expert’s realm of knowledge and, thus, remain admissible in court. 

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