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State v. Fana-Ruiz

Superior Court of Delaware

August 9, 2019

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
BEATRIZ Y. FANA-RUIZ, Defendant.

          Submitted: June 17, 2019

         Upon consideration of the Motions in Limine and Applications to Admit Opinion Testimony GRANTED in part and DENIED in part

          John W. Downs, Esquire and Barzilai K. Axelrod, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for the State of Delaware.

          Kevin J. O'Connell, Esquire and Misty A. Seemans, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendant Beatriz Y. Fana-Ruiz.

          Eric M. Davis, Judge

         I. GENERAL BACKGROUND

         The State charged Defendant Ms. Beatriz Y. Fana-Ruiz with one count of Arson First Degree, six counts of Murder First Degree, one count of Assault First Degree, Six Counts of Reckless Endangering in the First Degree and two counts of Arson in the Third Degree. The State alleges that Ms. Fana-Ruiz started a fire at around 2:30AM on September 24, 2016 by placing a burning piece of paper in a dollhouse in her basement. Three firefighters were killed while fighting this fire. The State indicted Ms. Fana-Ruiz on January 23, 2017.

         Ms. Fana-Ruiz provided a number of statements to law enforcement officials that are at issue. First, Wilmington Police Department ("WPD") detectives interviewed Ms. Fana-Ruiz on or around 5:45 p.m. on September 24, 2016. Second, two Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm ("ATF") investigators interviewed Ms. Fana-Ruiz on September 28, 2016. Third, on September 28, 2016, the ATF investigators walked through the scene of the fire with Ms. Fana-Ruiz. During discussions with the ATF investigators, Ms. Fana-Ruiz provided inculpatory statements including a confession to having started the fire. The WPD detectives and the ATF investigators provided Miranda warnings to Ms. Fana-Ruiz before the interviews.

         On August 2, 2018, Ms. Fana-Ruiz provided the State with three expert reports. The authors of the expert reports are James M. Walsh, Ph.D, LPCMH, I.Bruce Frumkin, Ph.D., ABPP, and Brian L. Cutler, Ph.D. At trial, Ms. Fana-Ruiz seeks to have Dr. Frumkin and Dr. Cutler testify. Dr. Walsh will not testify, but Dr. Frumkin and Dr, Cutler both rely on certain conclusions made by Dr. Walsh. Through the testimony of Dr. Frumkin and Dr. Cutler, Ms. Fana-Ruiz seeks to provide testimony that discuss interrogation techniques, the "phenomenon" of contaminated or false confessions, the susceptibility of a person to providing a contaminated or false confession and Ms. Fana-Ruiz's mental state and susceptibility.

         In response, the State asked the Court to order Ms. Fana-Ruiz to undergo psychiatric and/or psychological testing from State retained experts. On November 21, 2018, the Court ordered Ms. Fana-Ruiz to submit to such testing. The State then had Ms. Fana-Ruiz examined by Gregory B. Saathoff, M.D. and Stephen Mechanick, M.D. Subsequently, the State submitted expert reports from Dr. Saathoff and Dr. Mechanick. The State has consistently characterized the Dr. Saathoff and Dr. Mechanick reports as rebuttal reports to be used in the event that the Court allows Dr. Frumkin and Dr. Cutler to testify.

         The State and Ms. Fana-Ruiz moved to preclude Dr. Saathoff, Dr. Mechanick, Dr. Frumkin and Dr. Cutler from testifying at trial. The Court held a Daubert hearing from March 25, 2019 through March 28, 2019 (the "Hearing") regarding the admissibility of testimony from the various doctors. At the conclusion of the Hearing, the Court made two requests of counsel: (i) submission of the proposed experts' curriculum vitae and (ii) copies of Ms. Fana-Ruiz's statements. The State and Ms. Fana-Ruiz made a request to submit post-Hearing briefs. The Court granted the request. The parties completed briefing on June 17, 2019.

         After the Hearing and the conclusion of post-hearing briefing, the Court viewed the interviews of Ms. Fana-Ruiz by the WPD detectives and the ATF investigators. The Court notes that during the interviews with the ATF investigators, Ms. Fana-Ruiz admits to starting the fire at the residence. The Court has been advised that Ms. Fana-Ruiz now contends that her confession is a false confession. After review of the interviews, and as conceded by Ms. Fana-Ruiz, the Court finds no basis to conclude that the WPD detectives or the ATF investigators violated Ms. Fana-Ruiz's Miranda rights.

         In addition, the Court has reviewed the curriculum vitae of Dr. Frumkin, Dr. Cutler, Dr. Saathoff and Dr. Mechanick. The Court is comfortable that the testimony concerning each expert's qualifications is supported by their curriculum vitae.

         As set forth below, the Court will allow Dr. Frumkin, Dr. Cutler, Dr. Saathoff and Dr. Mechanick to testify. However, the Court will not allow Dr. Saathoff to opine that Ms. Fana-Ruiz's background and presentation is consistent with existing research regarding characteristics of known female arsonists. The Court will allow Dr. Saathoff to testify as to Ms. Fana-Ruiz's mental state and susceptibility to falsely confess.

         II. THE OPINIONS

         Dr. Frumkin. Dr. Frumkin is a forensic psychologist. Dr. Frumkin received his Masters Degree and his Ph.D. in psychology from Washington University. Dr. Frumkin also has a Diplomate in Forensic Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. According to Dr. Frumkin, a Diplomate equates to being board certified in forensic psychology. Dr. Frumkin has been qualified and has testified as an expert in court.

         Dr. Frumkin evaluated Ms. Fana-Ruiz and certain facts of this criminal case. Dr. Frumkin created a report containing his opinions.[1] The Court has reviewed Dr. Frumkin's report. After evaluating Ms. Fana-Ruiz, Dr. Frumkin opines that "Ms. Fana-Ruiz has a number of vulnerabilities which make her more susceptible to falsely confessing compared to others in light of the interrogation used."[2] Dr. Frumkin then goes on to discuss one type of false confession-Coerced-Internalized False Confession-and then moves back to discussing Ms. Fana-Ruiz's vulnerabilities like poor memory, intoxication, and that she was high at the time of the arson. It appears in the report that Dr. Frumkin is opining, or at the very least implying, that Ms. Fana-Ruiz's confession falls into the category of Coerced-Internalized False Confession. During the Hearing, Dr. Frumkin clarified that he has formed no opinion on whether Ms. Fana-Ruiz provided a false confession.

         Dr. Cutler. Dr. Cutler is a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Dr. Cutler has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Cutler states that he has been conducting research on forensic psychology since 1984.

         Dr. Cutler's report states that he was retained to offer opinions on (i) the risk of false confessions in general; (ii) the link between false confessions and wrongful conviction; (iii) personal and situational risk factors that increase the risk of false confessions; and (iv) the extent to which personal and situation risk factors associated with false confessions are present in the interviews of Ms. Fana-Ruiz. The report goes through adiscussion of risks of false confession, links between false confessions and wrongful convictions, and personal and situational risk factors. The report then takes these general concepts and tries to tie them into the actual interviews of Ms. Fana-Ruiz by the WPD detectives and the ATF investigators.

         At the Hearing, Dr. Cutler testified that he can educate the jury about the psychological factors of the interrogation process, how an interrogation is conducted, the psychological experience of people subjected to interrogation, and the situational risk factors observed in the case of Ms. Fana-Ruiz.[3] Dr. Cutler stated that he would not and could not opine on whether Ms. Fana-Ruiz gave a true or false confession. Dr. Cutler provided that "the science itself does not give [him] the tools that would enable [him] to offer such an opinion." [4]

         Dr. Saathoff. Dr. Saathoff is a professor in Public Health Sciences and Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Dr. Saathoff went to medical school at the University of Missouri and completed his residency at the University of Virginia. Dr. Saathoff has been a faculty member at the University of Virginia since 1987. Dr. Saathoff is a trained psychiatrist. Dr. Saathoff has a specialty field of forensic psychiatry within the field of psychiatry. Dr. Saathoff is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology.

         Dr. Saathoff personally examined Ms. Fana-Ruiz and provided an expert report containing his opinions. In his report, Dr. Saathoff presents two opinions: (i) Ms. Fana-Ruiz's background and presentation is consistent with existing research regarding characteristics of known female arsonists; and (ii) a review of Ms. Fana-Ruiz's interviews, her correctional records, her social history as well as information that she provided in her interview with Dr. Saathoff demonstrates that she identifies herself as someone who demonstrates independence and self-advocacy when dealing with authority figures.

         The State provides that Dr. Saathoff is being offered only as a rebuttal witness in the event the Court allows Dr. Cutler and/or Dr. Frumkin to testify.

         Dr. Mechanick. Dr. Mechanick is a psychiatrist. Dr. Mechanick went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a one-year medical internship at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Boston and did a psychiatric residency at Beth Israel Hospital which is located in Boston. Dr. Mechanick is a licensed physician in Pennsylvania and New York. Dr. Mechanick is board certified in psychiatry and neurology. Dr. Mechanick performs both clinical and forensic psychiatric services.

         Dr. Mechanick examined Ms. Fana-Ruiz. Dr. Mechanick submitted an expert report that provides opinions as to Ms. Fana-Ruiz's mental state and her susceptibility traits, if any, as those might relate to falsely confessing. Dr. Mechanick also reviewed the opinions of Ms. Fana-Ruiz's experts and provides his opinion as to their conclusions.

         The State has stated that Dr. Mechanick is being offered solely as a rebuttal witness in the event that Dr. Frumkin and/or Dr. Cutler testify.

         III. DISCUSSION

         a. Delaware Rule of Evidence 702: Admissibility of Expert Testimony

         The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Delaware Rules of Evidence 702 ("Rule 702"). Rule 702 provides that:

If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.[5]

Rule 702 is similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 702. When applying Rule 702, Delaware Courts have adopted the U.S. Supreme Court's holdings in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.[6] Daubert requires the trial judge to act as gatekeeper and determine whether the expert testimony is relevant and reliable and whether it will assist the trier of fact.[7] The Delaware Supreme has adopted a five-part test for trial courts to consider when determining the admissibility of scientific or technical testimony. The trial judge must decide whether:

(i) the witness is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education; (ii) the evidence is relevant and reliable; (iii) the expert's opinion is based upon information reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field; (iv) the expert testimony will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; and (v) the expert testimony will not create unfair prejudice or confuse or mislead the jury.[8]

         A trial judge must assess whether the expert's methodology, rather than the expert's conclusion, is valid.[9] The Daubert Court provided a non-exhaustive list of factors for trial judges to consider in determining whether expert testimony is sufficiently reliable:

[i] whether the theory or technique in question can be (and has been) tested, [ii] whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication, [iii] its known or potential error rate and the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation, and [iv] whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.[10]

         But, "[s]ome types of expert testimony will be more objectively verifiable, and subject to the expectations of falsifiability, peer review, and publication, than others. Some types of expert testimony will not rely on anything like a scientific method, and so will have to be evaluated by reference to other standard principles attendant to the particular area of expertise."[11] Still, in all cases, the court must conclude that the "proffered expert testimony ... is properly grounded, well reasoned, and not speculative before it can be admitted . . . ."[12] "The party seeking to introduce the expert testimony bears the burden of establishing its admissibility by a preponderance of the evidence."[13]

         b. Admissibility of Expert Testimony Regarding ...


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