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Expert testimony on behavior of domestic violence victims allowed, court rules

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Juries are entitled to hear from experts who can explain why domestic violence victims often forgive their attackers, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The justices rejected arguments by Mark Haskie Jr. that he did not get a fair trial because jurors heard from an expert witness who described the general behavioral tendencies of adult victims of domestic abuse. He argued that the testimony essentially suggested to the jury that because he has certain characteristics he must have committed the crime.

But Justice Robert Brutinel, writing for the unanimous court, said the trial judge did nothing wrong.

“Because the testimony helped the jury understand the victim’s behavior and was more probative than prejudicial, the trial court did not err in admitting it,” he wrote.

According to court records, Haskie assaulted his girlfriend, identified only as P.J., at a Flagstaff motel after searching through messages on her phone and threatening her by saying, “I told you I would kill you if you cheated on me.”

That same day P.J. wrote a statement for police explaining that Haskie beat and strangled her, evidence that was corroborated from physical evidence from the motel.

Haskie was arrested nearly a year later. Shortly after his arrest, P.J. wrote two letters to police recanting earlier statements, claiming that her injuries were from a bar fight she could not remember and that Haskie was innocent.

At trial, prosecutors presented recorded phone calls Haskie made from jail, including several to P.J. before she recanted.

In one, Haskie dictated a story for her to tell police, apologized to her and promised to marry her. And in another, P.J. responded, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have tried to kill me.”

At trial, however, she said she didn’t remember who had beaten her because she had been drinking and that although she initially blamed Haskie for her injuries because she was jealous, she had in fact cheated on him.

Dr. Kathleen Ferraro, listed as an expert in domestic violence, told jurors it is “not unusual” for victims to return to relationships. She said reasons range from fear or threats to those who get pressure from a victim’s own family or from their own shame.

And she said it is “a very common response” for victims to blame themselves.

Haskie was convicted and appealed, arguing the testimony was improper.

He argued the law precludes “profile” evidence, designed to convince jurors that certain characteristics that might be common then become evidence of that person’s guilt. And Brutinel acknowledged there’s a good reason for that, saying that people could be convicted not for what they do “but for what others are doing.”

But Brutinel said what Ferraro had to offer was clearly relevant.

“The victim’s behavior and inconsistent statements were squarely at issue,” the justice wrote. “The testimony was relevant to help the jury understand P.J.’s behavior.”

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