Washington County District Court File No. 82-CR-11-577
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Peter Orput, Washington County Attorney, Thomas D. Wedes, Assistant County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota (for respondent)
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Bridget K. Sabo, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Hooten, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Willis, Judge. [*]
Appellant Jacob John Skinner challenges his conviction of second-degree assault, arguing that the district court committed reversible error when it permitted a police officer to testify that the wound on Skinner's hand was consistent with wounds the police officer has seen in other knife-fight cases. We affirm.
We review the district court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. State v. Mahkuk, 736 N.W.2d 675, 686 (Minn. 2007). When the district court errs in admitting evidence, we determine whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Munt, 831 N.W.2d 569, 583 (Minn. 2013). If there is a reasonable possibility that the verdict might have been more favorable to the defendant without the evidence, then the error is prejudicial. Id.
Following a stabbing report at an apartment complex, Oak Park Heights police officers followed a trail of blood to an apartment unit. After the tenant opened the door, the officers entered the unit and found Skinner in a back bedroom, covered by a blanket and bleeding heavily from a cut on his hand. Skinner was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. At the jury trial, the state called Sergeant Michael Hausken. He testified that he has (1) 29 years of experience as a police officer; (2) taken numerous classes on assaults and weapons; and (3) seen "30 or better" knife wounds during his time as a police officer. Based on this experience, Sergeant Hausken testified that people in knife fights will often cut themselves when their hands slip over the blade. He concluded that the wound on Skinner's hand was consistent with wounds he has seen in other knife-fight cases.
The admissibility of expert testimony is governed by Minn. R. Evid. 702, which states the following:
If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise. The opinion must have foundational reliability.
Thus, nonscientific expert testimony is admissible if "(1) the witness is qualified as an expert; (2) the expert's opinion has foundational reliability; [and] (3) the expert testimony is helpful to the jury." State v. Obeta, 796 N.W.2d 282, 289 (Minn. 2011).
We have permitted police officers to provide expert testimony about subjects that fall within their expertise. See State v. Thompson, 300 Minn. 220, 222, 218 N.W.2d 760, 762 (1974) (police officer qualified as expert in fingerprint identification despite lack of formal training); State v. Carillo, 623 N.W.2d 922, 926-27 (Minn.App. 2001) (police officer familiar with gangs permitted to testify that a certain group was a criminal gang), review denied (Minn. June 19, 2001). The basic test is whether the officer's expert testimony will "add precision or depth to the jury's ability to reach conclusions." State v.Ferguson, 804 N.W.2d 586, 604 (Minn. 2011) (quotation omitted); see also Carillo, 623 N.W.2d at 926 ("[T]he primary criterion for admissibility ...