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Domestic Violence

Expert Witnesses in Domestic Violence and Coercive Control

An expert witness explains complex issues to judges and juries.

Key points

  • Expert witnesses help courts understand the complexities of domestic abuse, including why victim-survivors and offenders do what they do.
  • Expert witnesses can testify based on their general knowledge of the subject and/or on the specifics of a given case.
  • Testimony of someone trained in psychology is vital to domestic abuse cases.

The R. Kelly case of alleged sexual exploitation, violence, and coercive control raises complex questions for most of us—as well as the judge and jury. People may wonder how R. Kelly managed to persuade his alleged victims to stay in his home, in some cases for years. Both sides are likely to bring in expert witnesses. Let's look at what expert witnesses do in cases of domestic abuse and coercive control.

Expert witnesses educate judges and juries in both criminal and civil courts. They base their opinions on scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge. Expert witnesses can help the courts understand that domestic abuse is not caused by anger, jealousy, mental illness, substance abuse, or by the victim’s actions.

Expert witnesses also help the courts understand what victim-survivors do to survive. This protects victims from being pathologized or blamed for the consequences of the abuse.

The judge reviews the expert’s credentials and agrees to admit their testimony before allowing them to speak. The lawyer who engaged the expert questions them first; then the lawyer from the other side cross-examines the expert.

Expert witnesses testify in two different ways:

  1. General Expertise: This is when an expert knows little to nothing about the specific case and testifies about domestic abuse in general. The lawyers can still ask hypothetical or “what if” questions that demonstrate how the information might pertain to a specific case.
  2. Case-Specific: Here, expert witnesses write reports and often testify to the facts specific to a case. They review associated materials which might include police or medical reports, psychological evaluations, guardian ad litem reports, court documents, and relevant photographs or records of texts. The expert may also conduct a domestic violence/coercive control interview and assessment with the alleged victim.

General Expertise Testimony

Expert witnesses are likely to teach the court about:

  • Research on coercive control and domestic violence
  • Definitions of the issue and explanations as to why it occurs
  • Explanations as to why a victim might recant, lie, comply with, defend, or stay with the abuser
  • The characteristics, beliefs, tactics, motivations, and behaviors of offenders
  • The consequences victims face when they try to protect themselves or their children
  • The impact of trauma on adult and child victims and witnesses
  • Changes in abuse frequency and severity over time

Case-Specific Testimony

Additionally, if the expert is familiar with the case, the expert could discuss:

  • The “natural history” of the couple from the time they met until the present day
  • The abuser’s specific domestic abuse/coercive control tactics
  • Possible cultural influences on the case
  • Ways the survivor tried to moderate the abuse for self-protection or to protect others
  • The psychological, medical, and financial impact of the abuse on the victim-survivor
  • The impact of the abuse on children or other family members
  • The findings of a domestic violence/coercive control assessment the expert completed with the victim/survivor
  • Recommendations for custody/visitation
  • The validity of previous assessments and evaluations by other professionals

Here are some examples of civil cases where an expert witness may prove key:

  • Pre- or post-nuptial agreements or other contracts: An expert witness can evaluate whether a pre- or post-nuptial agreement or other contract was coerced, and therefore should be set aside.
  • Immigration: Often, a domestic abuse victim’s immigration status is tied to her spouse or sponsor. Or, an asylum seeker seeks relief from deportation because she faces domestic homicide or severe violence in her home country.
  • Benefits: During divorce proceedings, a domestic abuse survivor may have been too afraid to raise the issue of abuse or demand her rightful half of the abuser’s assets or retirement pay. A domestic violence expert may be able to help a survivor recover these benefits, even after a great deal of time has passed.
  • Divorce: An expert witness can help the court understand the need to protect victim-survivors from divorce or custody agreements that would put them at risk or enable further abusive control.
  • Custody/visitation: In family court, an expert can describe the evidence of domestic abuse and explain the victim’s survival behaviors. Where relevant, the expert can offer an opinion of any potential danger to the children if the abuser is granted custody or unsupervised visitation. The expert can counter claims of “parental alienation syndrome” which abusers’ attorneys sometimes use to wrest custody from a protective parent
  • Vexatious litigation or litigation abuse: The expert can educate the court about the ways an abuser may file frequent court petitions to control, harass, or impoverish the victim.
  • Tort cases: In some jurisdictions, victims of domestic abuse can sue the abuser for damages that occurred over time. Experts can help explain the harms to establish the basis for compensation.

Here are some examples of criminal cases where an expert witness may prove key:

  • Felonies: Domestic abuse experts educate the courts in cases involving stalking, assault, murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, and other felonies. They may be especially important where abusers try to defend themselves by saying the sexual activities were consensual, or that the violence resulted from a fight rather than abuse, or that the victims had freely given away their assets.
  • Mitigating circumstances: Experts teach the courts about the pressures on domestic abuse victims in cases where the abuse victim assaulted or killed the abuser, or where the abuser pushed the victim into committing another crime.
  • Child abuse or neglect: Sometimes a domestic abuse victim faces charges related to the injury or death of a child. The expert witness can provide important contextual information.

Whenever the courts need to understand domestic abuse, an expert can provide testimony, including in grand jury hearings, plea negotiations, trials, sentencing, and clemency or parole hearings.

When I testify as an expert witness, I remind whoever hires me that I am not “on” either side. I am hired to educate the courts based on my expertise.

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