United States v. Marenghi

A Maine federal court held that a defendant could use expert testimony to negate mens rea, and a "battered woman syndrome" theory to support a duress defense. Also, the expert would not be required to provide his notes to the government and she would not have to submit to psychiatric testing from the government. United States v. Marenghi, 893 F. Supp. 85 (D. Me. 1995).

The federal government sought to exclude expert defense testimony on defendant Michelle Marenghi's mental capacity and the role of battered woman syndrome as a defense to possession and distribution of controlled substances. The government argued that under the Insanity Defense Reform Act (IDRA), 18 U.S.C. §17, evidence of mental disease is admissible only to demonstrate elements of an insanity defense. In the alternative, the government sought access to Marenghi's medical records and an order requiring Marenghi to undergo a psychiatric exam.

The IDRA established a standard for the insanity defense while noting that "[m]ental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense." Id., at §17(a). Marenghi contended that the statute abolished affirmative defenses other than insanity, but permitted defendants to introduce evidence negating mens rea. The court agreed with Marenghi and all other circuits interpreting the statute. See e.g., United States v. Cameron, 907 F2d 1051 (11th Cir. 1990), 15 MPDLR 485. The consensus reasoning was that presentation of evidence to negate mens rea did not "constitute a defense" because such a presentation merely negates one element of the alleged offense.

The court found that Marenghi could present expert testimony on battered woman syndrome as a duress defense provided the evidence was relevant and not unreasonably prejudicial. In addition, evidence of Marenghi's vulnerability to coercion by her alleged batterer was relevant to whether she acted as a reasonable person in response to any alleged coercion.

Moreover, the government did not have rights to access medical notes from defendant's experts. The federal rules specifically limit adverse party inspection to "results or reports." Fed. R. Crim.P. 16(b)(1)(B). And, notes taken during a mental examination were merely raw data, not results or reports as contemplated by the Rule.

Finally, the court found that the right to examine a criminal defendant was limited to determining mental competency to stand trial or to rebut an insanity defense. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 12.2(c). Because neither issue was present in this case, the court denied the government's request.

Comment: Subsequent to the above ruling, Dr. Bursztajn was retained by the United States as a forensic psychiatry expert. His observation of trial testimony, including that of the defense experts, resulted in his being able to testify on behalf of the government. His testimony focussed on the minimum standards for forensic psychiatric examination and diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the government.