In 2016, we’ve seen some courts marching toward a more scientific approach to expert testimony and the application of a higher standard of qualification.
So how did a self-proclaimed “cult specialist” and “deprogrammer” end up testifying before a grand jury in a New York murder investigation? That’s what the defense in the case wanted to know.
The expert is a man named Rick Ross, a controversial figure who claims to have intervened in 500 deprogrammings worldwide. He’s not to be confused with two other famous people of the same name, Rick Ross the rapper or “Freeway” Rick Ross the cocaine kingpin.
Though all three have had more than one encounter with the criminal courts, both of the other men have attended college, something that the cult expert didn’t do.
Given that Mr. Ross has criminal convictions, no formal post-secondary education, no formal training, and no peer-reviewed studies to support his expertise, the defense asked that Mr. Ross’s testimony be stricken from the record.
For the sake of all expert witnesses, I concur. Not that I have anything against Rick Ross. Courts have to simply stop allowing expert testimony unless the purveyor has peer-group acknowledged expertise and the scientifically determined and reviewed results to support the testimony.
In October 2015, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard from Chadwicks, New York, died from injuries sustained during an hours-long ‘counseling’ session at his church, the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, Oneida County, New York. Both he and his brother (who survived, albeit with severe injuries), were repeatedly beaten by parishioners during the session. Leonard allegedly prompted the session after expressing an interest in leaving the church.
Police arrested and charged the nine people involved in the assault on Lucas Leonard.
The church’s Pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, was one of the people arrested and charged. Irwin pleaded guilty in October to third-degree manslaughter in the death of Lucas Leonard and felony second-degree assault for the beating of his brother Christopher Leonard.
However, prior to Irwin’s sentencing hearing, her attorney filed a motion to exclude the grand jury testimony of Ross. While one can question the timing of the motion, the issues it raises is the more poignant subject.
Is the Frye Standard to Blame?
Though never admitted in New York, Ross claims to have testified in federal court and ten state courts. Of course, this has to be correct because I’m sure no prosecutor’s office would hire an expert without verifying the content of their website, right? And if this is true, it doesn’t reflect on Ross. It shines a jaundiced glow on the judicial system.
The difference in standard is not to blame here. It boils down to the prosecution using Ross to try to force longer prison sentences in a plea deal by drumming up fears of a cult through Ross’s testimony.
And it worked. All nine defendants have pled out.
Maybe this tactic spared the state the cost of prosecution. Maybe guilty people got the sentence they deserved for doing something terrible.
But what are the long-term ramifications?
It’s harder to get convictions because people are more suspicious of the system. The more often prosecutors game the system to get convictions, the harder it will get. At some point, courts have to stop the games before the penalty ends up being that all criminals go free.