Fortune Telling & Reliability? An Expert Testimony Enigma
Reprinted with permission.
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visitors. This particular article is titled "Fortune Telling & Reliability? An Expert Testimony Enigma." It
illustrates how dicey the process of selecting appropriate Expert Witnesses can be for legal teams - especially
given the subjective nature of judges who decide on admissibility of evidence.
BullsEye: August 2013
Fortune Telling &
Reliability? An Expert Testimony Enigma
Maggie Tamburro on 2013/08/09
No question about it – some expert challenge outcomes
are easier to foretell than others. That being said, we don’t envy one magistrate judge’s gatekeeper role in a case
requiring a decision about whether expert testimony proffered on fortune telling and psychics is reliable.
If you query whether reliable expert testimony about fortune telling is an oxymoron, then read on.
Admittedly, taking a respite from our usual fare of civil securities, antitrust and more objective topics to dive
into the ethereal realm is refreshing – even if we don’t have a crystal ball that gives all the answers. As a side
note we’d be a tad skeptical of anyone claiming that they did at this stage of the case.
But what resonates
in this case isn’t necessarily the court’s decision on admissibility, although we confess to be a little curious
to see the judge’s ruling following the hearing reportedly held on July 22. Rather, it’s how to apply the various
factors affecting admissibility of expert testimony as contained in Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the non-exhaustive
factors of Daubert – in a criminal context such as this where expert testimony, reliability, and fortune telling
seem somewhat paradoxical.
A Case of Alleged Fraudulent Fortune Telling
recently reported on in the
Sun Sentinel, could involve the fate of one defendant who has pled not guilty to criminal charges filed in a
Florida federal court in connection with claims that she bilked clients out of millions of dollars by operating
an alleged fraudulent fortune telling and psychic scam operation.
Non-Scientific Expert Testimony
The case involves the testimony of a proposed expert witness – a former police officer
and licensed private investigator, who, according to court documents, has worked exclusively over the last few years
assisting in criminal investigations involving fraudulent fortune telling and physic scams designed to exploit vulnerable
The government has requested that the expert be allowed to testify on the attributes of such
fraudulent fortune telling schemes, including testimony that the expert has noted a “common methodology” in scam
operations throughout the U.S. that involve financial exploitation of a fragile individuals. Such attributes might
include, for example, convincing individuals of an ability to communicate with spirits or to lift a curse, according
to court documents.
In short, the government asserts that Daubert does not require certain specialized knowledge
in matters of law enforcement to be based in science if a proper foundation for reliability can otherwise be shown
– for example, by way of the expert’s knowledge or experience. Such non-scientific testimony has been previously
allowed by courts in criminal cases, according to the argument, for example to show modus operandi or other kinds
information not known to the average juror.
The defense, however, has filed a motion to exclude the expert’s
testimony, alleging that it is not based on a scientific foundation or specialized knowledge, but instead amounts
to speculative and subjective conclusions which fail to assist the trier of fact. The defense asserts that the expert’s
testimony will improperly offer an opinion as to a fortune teller’s state of mind – something that can’t be tested
– and that a juror is perfectly capable of forming an opinion as to the matter.
Turning to Federal
Rule of Evidence 702
The case caused us to turn
Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and its
accompanying advisory committee notes for guidance on expert testimony involving more subjective, less verifiable
A caveat: Just as the factors in Daubert are not meant to be a checklist, these points will not
be applicable to every case involving expert testimony, as each case and the facts and circumstances are unique.
Further, we wouldn’t dare peer into the future in an attempt to predict the judge’s decision here. But we did find
this case presents an opportune time to take a look at some considerations with regard to admissibility of less-than-scientific
The advisory committee notes to Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which specifically address
the factors and applicability of Daubert and its progeny, Kumho, and Joiner, provide some important points that
are worth noting in cases such as this, where less objective, less quantifiable and perhaps less verifiable expert
testimony is at issue.
As for this case, the judge has yet to make a decision as to admissibility – at least of this writing – although
according to court records a hearing on the motion to exclude was held on July 22. If improperly admitted, as the
defense points out, such expert testimony has the inherent power to be both powerful and misleading, so the decision
in this case could be extremely important for all of the parties involved. For reasons some
academic commentators have noted, the Daubert factors can be treated differently in criminal prosecutions.
- First and foremost, in order to be admissible expert testimony must be helpful to the trier of fact. As stated
in the notes, “There is no more certain test for determining when experts may be used than the common sense inquiry
whether the untrained layman would be qualified to determine intelligently and to the best possible degree the
particular issue without enlightenment from those having a specialized understanding of the subject involved…”.
- The rule contemplates in some cases the admissibility of expert testimony based on knowledge that is not purely
scientific or technical, but otherwise “specialized.”
- The rule contemplates that not all expert evidence will rely on a “scientific method” and recognizes that
some types of expert testimony will be more “objectively verifiable” than other types.
- The rule contemplates that experience alone, or combined with “other knowledge, skill, training or education”
may in some cases be a sufficient foundational basis for expert testimony.
- The more “subjective and controversial” an expert’s inquiry, the greater the likelihood it could be excluded
Do you think that the expert testimony proffered here should be admissible? Why or why not?
Tamburro is an attorney, legal writer and commentator who holds a B.A. from The University of Texas and a J.D.
from The John Marshall Law School. Maggie graduated 5th in her class from John Marshall, served as Law Review Associate
Editor, and was awarded the Dean's Scholarship Award for three consecutive years. Maggie holds the position of Senior
Copywriter at IMS ExpertServices, where she handles the creation and optimization of webpage copy, print material
language, and plays an active role in the company’s online social media strategy. Maggie was admitted to the Illinois
Bar in 1994 and Florida Bar in 1999 and has significant experience in legal research, editing, and writing. From
drafting complex commercial transactional documents to journalistic reporting, Maggie brings a unique blend of background,
experience, and perspective to IMS in both the area of law and writing.
IMS Expert Services is the premier
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Posted August 28, 2013