The Third Department, reversing defendant’s conviction, over a dissent, determined the judge’s response to a jury note was inadequate and the judge did not make the required initial determination that a witness was qualified to offer expert-opinion evidence on the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (CSAAS). The jury wanted to know whether a guilty verdict required that the three alleged acts of sexual abuse take place within the three-month period described in the indictment. The answer was “es,” but the judge merely re-read the original charge about which the jury was confused. With respect to the CSAAS witness, the judge left it up to the jury to decide whether she was qualified as an expert:
… [T]he jury had already been provided with a complete written copy of the court’s original instructions for its reference during deliberations. Under these circumstances, County Court’s response to the jury’s inquiry was not meaningful, as it did nothing to clarify the very specific point on which the jury was confused. “[I]n our view, this is one of those rare cases where interest of justice review is warranted. Where the court fails to give information requested upon a vital point no appellate court may disregard the error” … . * * *
Although “[t]he court is not required to explicitly declare a witness an expert before permitting [expert] testimony” … , “the trial court is vested with the initial responsibility of evaluating whether an expert possesses the requisite skill, training, education, knowledge or experience from which it can be assumed that the information imparted or the opinion rendered is reliable” … . Here, County Court abdicated its responsibility to make the initial determination as to whether [the witness] qualified as an expert. People v Goff, 2024 NY Slip Op 00656, Third Dept 2-8-24
Practice Point: A response to a jury note must clarify the confusion expressed in the note. Here, re-reading the original instruction was not sufficient.
Practice Point: Although a judge is not required to explicitly declare a witness an expert, the judge must make the initial determination whether the witness is qualified to offer reliable testimony.