Domestic Violence Expert Witness Opines on Police Inaction


Domestic Violence Expert WitnessCase: Cooper v. City of Chi. Heights, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56926

Background

Teresa Lacovetti’s ex-boyfriend Allen Perkins allegedly murdered her after she repeatedly complained about Perkins’ harassment to the City of Chicago Heights (“the City”) police department and Perkins’ parole officer, Agent Bradley (together “Defendants”). Jason Cooper, as administrator of Lacovetti’s estate, sued the City and Bradley, asserting that Defendants violated the equal protection clause because they gave inferior protective services to Lacovetti because she was a woman.

Expert Witness

One of Cooper’s two experts was Dr. Kathleen Ferraro, a sociologist and professor at Northern Arizona University, who sought to opine that Iacovetti received less protection from the CHPD and Bradley because she was female. Dr. Ferraro has written extensively on domestic violence, crime against women, and the criminal justice system. She reached the following specific conclusions:

1) The CHPD and Bradley were aware of Lacovetti’s risk of “intimate partner homicide” and Defendants had a “special relationship” with Iacovetti;
2) Based on the CHPD’s protocol, the CHPD should have provided assistance to Iacovetti and taken “appropriate action against” Perkins;
3) the CHPD’s failure to follow its protocol “constitutes willful and wanton misconduct;”
4) The CHPD and Agent Bradley failed to protect Iacovetti based on her race, gender and relationship status, and Iacovetti “would have received a different response if she was a wealthy, white woman who was not a former girlfriend of Perkins.”

Daubert Challenge

The City asserted that Dr. Ferraro’s testimony should be barred because:

1) The studies she relied upon regarding police responses to domestic violence could not be applied to this case because those studies did not compare women to men, and Dr. Ferraro did not examine any data from the City;
2) Dr. Ferraro conceded that any discrimination against Lacovetti was based first and foremost on race, not gender;
3) She cannot opine that Lacovetti had a “special relationship” with the CHPD because it is a legal conclusion;
4) Dr. Ferraro was not qualified to opine as to how police should have handled Iacovetti’s situation with Perkins; and
5) The jury did not need expert testimony to conclude that “domestic violence is more likely to affect women, that women who are minorities and residing in a poverty stricken area are more likely to suffer an escalation of domestic violence and ineffective police response, and that women that are threatened with weapons . . . are more likely to be more seriously injured.”

Conclusion

The Court granted the City’s motion in part and denied it in part. Ferraro’s opinions generally made two connections. First, Dr. Ferraro cited several studies that listed the various risk factors, including gender and marital status, that make it more likely that someone will be killed by a former lover. Dr. Ferraro concluded that many of those risk factors applied to Lacovetti and, given the their policies, Defendants should have intervened knowing Lacovetti was at risk. Second, Dr. Ferraro cited various studies that support the inference that poor black women like Lacovetti receive less police protection. From those studies, Dr. Ferraro concluded that Lacovetti received inferior police response from Defendants on account of her “race, gender and relationship status.”

The Court found that Dr. Ferraro was qualified to make the first connection. She had studied and written extensively concerning police response to domestic violence and the relationship between victims of domestic violence and the police. She also has trained clemency boards concerning domestic violence. How the police should, as a matter of policy, respond to domestic violence complaints and the risk factors for “intimate partner homicide” are a proper subject of expert testimony, according to the Court.

The Court also decided that whether Dr. Ferraro’s opinions concerning the CHPD and Bradley’s response should be ignored because she had never been a police or parole officer is a matter for cross-examination, not a reason to disqualify an otherwise qualified expert under Daubert. Further, given her expertise and methodology of comparing Lacovetti to known risk factors, she was qualified to evaluate Defendants’ response to Lacovetti’s complaints against the background of the applicable domestic violence response policies and standards. She therefore was eligible to opine that Defendants’ actions did not suffice under those policies and standards. Since Cooper had to show that Lacovetti received an inferior police response to prove his case, there was no doubt this testimony is relevant in the Court’s eyes.

Turning to the second connection, to support the conclusion that Iacovetti received less police protection because of her gender, Dr. Ferraro cited two types of studies. The first group of studies suggested that perpetrators of domestic violence are less likely to be arrested than perpetrators of “stranger violence” and suggest a number of factors explaining the disparity. The second set of studies suggested that black women call the police to report “intimate partner violence” at a higher rate than women of other races, but that calls from black women result in fewer arrests. Dr. Ferraro extrapolates from these studies to conclude that the CHPD, in this case, gave Iacovetti less protection. The Court found that conclusion to be inadmissible under Daubert for several reasons. First, the studies’ conclusions are irrelevant because they do not fit the allegations made in this case. Also, Dr. Ferraro’s discussion of the studies did not indicate that the studies compared how women are treated by the police as compared to men, or suggest that police more vigorously investigate domestic violence cases when the victims is male rather than female. The studies focused on race and wealth discrimination, while the case was concerned with gender discrimination. Further, to the extent that Dr. Ferraro’s point is that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men, that is common knowledge and the jury does not need the assistance of an expert. Second, even if the data was directly on point, the only connection between these studies and this specific case is Dr. Ferraro’s say-so. Consequently, her conclusion was ruled unreliable under Daubert.

Dr. Ferraro also was not permitted to opine that Defendants’ response constituted “willful and wanton misconduct” or that Lacovetti had a “special relationship” with Defendants. The Court believed these to be impermissible legal conclusions.

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