People v. Cooper, 19SC249

Case DateSeptember 27, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

2021 CO 69

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner

Kerry Lee Cooper, Respondent

No. 19SC249

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

September 27, 2021

Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals

Attorneys for Petitioner: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General Katharine Gillespie, Senior Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondent: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Tracy C. Renner, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

JUSTICE SAMOUR delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE GABRIEL dissents, and JUSTICE HOOD and JUSTICE HART join in the dissent.



¶1 Before expert testimony may be presented to a jury, it must pass through the gate of admissibility-a gate trial courts have been entrusted with vigilantly guarding. As gatekeepers, trial courts play an important role in ensuring that expert testimony is not admitted unless it "both rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand." Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597 (1993). Two decades ago, we ushered in a four-part test to channel a trial court's discretion in determining the admissibility of expert testimony under CRE 702: (1) the scientific principles underlying the testimony must be reasonably reliable; (2) the expert must be qualified to offer the testimony; (3) the testimony must be helpful to the jury; and (4) the evidence must satisfy CRE 403. People v. Shreck, 22 P.3d 68, 77-79 (Colo. 2001). The questions we agreed to review in this case and the companion case of People v. Coons, 2021 CO 70, P.3d, focus our attention on the third factor-helpfulness to the jury-in the context of generalized expert testimony (i.e., testimony aimed at educating the jury about general concepts or principles without attempting to discuss the particular facts of the case).[1]

¶2 We have previously explained that helpfulness to the jury hinges on "fit"-the expert testimony must fit the case. The overriding question squarely before us today is just how close a fit is required before generalized expert testimony may be admitted.

¶3 We now hold that generalized expert testimony fits a case if it has a sufficient logical connection to the factual issues to be helpful to the jury while still clearing the ever-present CRE 403 admissibility bar. In evaluating the fit of generalized expert testimony, a trial court must be mindful of the purposes for which such testimony is offered-that is, the reasons why the proponent of the evidence has asked the expert to educate the jury about certain concepts or principles.

¶4 The trial court in this case restricted the generalized expert testimony offered by the People regarding the dynamics of domestic violence. After considering the victim's testimony, the proposed expert opinions, and the reasons why the People were seeking to educate the jury, the trial court allowed only those opinions which it viewed as having a sufficient logical relation to the facts to be helpful to the jury without violating CRE 403. Because the trial court properly exercised its discretion in carrying out its gatekeeping function, and because the standard of review pertaining to the admission of expert testimony is highly deferential, the court of appeals erred in reversing the judgment of conviction. In our view, the court of appeals adopted a fit standard that is inflexible and overly exacting.

¶5 While generalized expert testimony must fit the case, the fit need not be perfect. In other words, each aspect of such testimony need not match a factual issue. Since generalized expert testimony, by definition, seeks to inform the jury about generic concepts or principles without knowledge of the facts, it is almost inevitable that parts of such testimony will not be logically connected to the case. For that reason, the fit inquiry must be flexible. A trial court should certainly not be expected to parse the proposed testimony and determine whether each statement the expert intends to utter is logically connected to a fact in the case. If the generalized expert testimony's logical connection to the factual issues is sufficient to be helpful to the jury without running afoul of CRE 403, the testimony fits the case.

¶6 Still, attorneys and trial courts should do their best to avoid introducing generalized expert testimony that has no logical connection to the facts of the case. As relevant here, prosecutors should take care to endorse generalized expert testimony about domestic violence only in appropriate cases; and, when they do so, they should endeavor to present only testimony that is logically connected to the factual issues. Trial courts, in turn, should exercise their discretion in deciding whether to permit all, some, or none of the proffered testimony under the fit standard we articulate today. In doing so, trial courts should consider the feasibility and propriety of admitting only a portion of the proposed generalized expert testimony on a particular subject.

¶7 Because the court of appeals incorrectly overturned the judgment of conviction, we reverse. We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶8 The defendant, Kerry Lee Cooper, met L.K. through a mutual friend when Cooper was in his mid-fifties and L.K. was in her mid-twenties. L.K. was living on the streets at the time, and Cooper invited her to stay at his house. She accepted his invitation and moved in with him. About a month later, they became romantically involved. Approximately a year and a half into their intimate relationship, Cooper and L.K. had a physical altercation that resulted in the charges brought against Cooper in this case.

A. The Incident

¶9 During a hot summer night, L.K. woke up in a panic because of the heat. Cooper's house lacked air conditioning and had many windows that were boarded up. L.K. felt like she couldn't breathe, so she asked Cooper to plug in a nearby fan. Cooper obliged but left the fan facing the floor. When L.K. asked him to reposition the fan toward her, he told her to leave it alone. What happened next is less certain because Cooper and L.K. provided different accounts of those events at trial.

1. L.K.'s Version of Events

¶10 L.K. tried to reposition the fan herself, but Cooper became angry and shoved the running fan into her face, cutting her with the fan blades. She grabbed a flashlight from the nightstand and hit Cooper on the head with it to take the fan away from him. At that point, Cooper dropped the fan and began punching L.K. in the face and ribs. After L.K. crawled across the bed, made her way to an open window, and screamed for help, Cooper told her to shut up, grabbed her by the jaw, and inserted his fingers into her mouth. She proceeded to bite down on one or more of his fingers. Once he was able to free his fingers from her mouth, he snatched a tire iron that was just outside the bedroom and threatened to hit her with it if she didn't stop screaming. L.K. cowered on the bed but continued screaming. Cooper then hit her twice in the head with the tire iron. During the attack, L.K.'s dog, Buddy, came into the room and started growling at Cooper. In response, Cooper struck Buddy twice in the face.[2]

2. Cooper's Version of Events

¶11 L.K. was unhappy with the location of the fan and started yelling at Cooper to reposition it. He unplugged it, threw it on the end of the bed, and told her to plug it in herself. As he was attempting to go back to sleep, she hit him on the head with a flashlight. He tried to take the flashlight away from her to protect himself, but she bit his finger hard enough to draw blood. To get her to open her mouth and release his finger, he pushed her in the forehead.

¶12 He did not shove the fan into L.K.'s face, punch her, or grab her jaw. Further, he did not threaten her-let alone hit her-with the tire iron; in fact, he never even picked up the tire iron. And he never hit Buddy.

3. The Aftermath

¶13 Cooper's daughter, who lived two houses away and heard L.K. screaming, called 911. When officers arrived, they observed that L.K. had swollen lips, dried blood around her mouth, a bruised nose, bruising around her eyes, bruising and marks on her ribs, and red marks on her scalp. In addition, they noticed a bump on her head. The officers also documented that Cooper had a bloody finger.

¶14 Cooper received medical treatment for his bloody finger at the scene. L.K., on the other hand, refused medical treatment for her injuries. A few days later, she apparently saw a doctor, who informed her that she had sustained a broken nose.[3]

¶15 L.K. moved out of the house immediately after the incident and never moved back. But she saw Cooper once more for approximately a half hour, and she had "more than a few" additional phone calls with him. During those conversations, she told him that she still loved him.

B. Arrest, Charges, and Relevant Pretrial Proceedings

¶16 Cooper was arrested on scene. He was later charged with one felony (menacing with a deadly weapon) and three misdemeanors (third degree assault, harassment, and cruelty to animals). The People alleged that the act underlying each offense was an act of "domestic violence," as that term is defined by Colorado law. See § 18-6-800.3(1), C.R.S. (2020) ("'Domestic violence' means an act or threatened act of violence upon a person with whom the actor is or has been involved in an intimate relationship," as well as "any other crime against a person, or against property, including an animal, . . . when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation, or revenge directed against a person with whom the actor is or has been involved in an intimate relationship.").[4]

¶17 On two separate occasions, the People sought and obtained a postponement of the trial because L.K. was being uncooperative. During one of the pretrial hearings, Cooper spontaneously...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT