New Jersey v. Cavallo

443 A.2d 1020, 88 N.J. 508 (1982)

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New Jersey v. Cavallo

New Jersey Supreme Court
443 A.2d 1020, 88 N.J. 508 (1982)


Michael Cavallo and David Murro (defendants) were indicted for the kidnapping and rape of a married woman who was two months pregnant. At trial, Cavallo proffered the testimony of a psychiatrist, Dr. Kuris, as an expert character witness who would testify that Cavallo lacked the character traits of a rapist. This testimony was necessarily based on two assumptions: (1) there were specific character traits unique to rapists; and (2) a psychiatrist was able to determine whether a person had these traits by examining the person. New Jersey rules of evidence permitted expert character evidence. However, a judge had the discretion to exclude expert-opinion testimony if the expert lacked sufficient expertise to testify regarding character or if the expert’s opinion did not comport with the standard provided in New Jersey Rule of Evidence 56(2). Rule 56(2) provided that expert testimony related to scientific evidence was admissible if the testimony was: (1) grounded in facts or data or based on expert opinion that was supported by evidence presented at trial; and (2) within the parameters of the expert’s education, skill, experience, or special knowledge. Thus, under Rule 56(2), admissibility required an expert’s expertise in the subject matter and that the expert’s testimony be sufficiently reliable. What qualified as reasonably reliable was partially determined by the context of the hearings in which the evidence was proffered. A trial judge excluded Kuris’s testimony, and Cavallo and Murro appealed after their convictions, arguing that Dr. Kuris’s testimony should not have been excluded. The appellate court affirmed the convictions and ruled that Dr. Kuris’s testimony was not admissible pursuant to Rule 47. The New Jersey Supreme Court (the reviewing court) granted review. After establishing that the testimony qualified as relevant under Rule 47, the reviewing court assessed whether the admissibility requirements of Rule 56(2) were satisfied by the two assumptions on which Dr. Kurtis’s testimony was based. The test of reliability under the seminal ruling in Frye focused on whether scientific evidence had acquired general acceptance among members of the scientific community. General acceptance was proved by the testimony of an expert, legal and scientific writings, and court opinions. Cavallo did not submit expert testimony or cite scientific or legal articles for the reviewing court’s review, and the reviewing court’s reading of court cases in various other jurisdictions did not show general acceptance of the psychiatric evidence proffered.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Pashman, J.)

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