Appeals court: Jury should have heard from therapist in commitment trial

Steve Korris Jul. 29, 2010, 7:51am

Montgomery County jurors who declared Michael Bohannan a sexually violent predator didn't hear all relevant facts, Ninth District appeals judges ruled.

On July 22, they reversed Bohannan's civil commitment and granted him a new trial.

They held that District Judge Michael Seiler improperly struck testimony of Bohannan's expert, counselor Anna Shursen.

"Dr. Shursen offered a sufficient foundation to establish that her opinion would have assisted the jury in its resolution of whether Bohannan would, beyond a reasonable doubt, likely commit a future sexually violent offense," Justice Hollis Horton wrote.

State law allows civil commitment of a predator with repeated offenses if he suffers from a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in a predatory act.

Surshen would have told jurors Bohannan had no abnormality at the time of trial, but the trial had already begun when Bohannan found out Shursen wouldn't testify.

That left nobody to deny the state's charges except Bohannan himself.

"Bohannan's own testimony that he would not re-offend was likely viewed by the jury as self serving," Horton wrote.

Bohannan had already served prison sentences on two sexual assault convictions.

According to the state, he had assaulted three adults and two children, all strangers, threatening them all with a knife.

For his civil commitment trial, the state designated a forensic psychologist, Dr. Price, and a psychiatrist, Dr. Arambula, as experts.

Bohannan designated Shursen, and the state challenged her qualifications.

After jury selection, Seiler sent jurors out and held a hearing on her qualifications.

Shursen testified she spent two-and-a-half to three hours with Bohannan. She said she based her assessment on their meeting, a review of his records, and her training and experience.

The counselor said she had a master's degree in counseling and a doctorate in family therapy and was licensed in Texas a sex offender treatment provider.

Shursen said she received 1,000 hours of clinical training, provided treatment to more than 100 offenders a week and had assessed about 18 persons in civil commitment proceedings.

Seiler excluded her testimony, finding she wasn't qualified to offer an expert opinion as to whether Bohannan suffered from an abnormality.

Price and Arambula testified that he suffered from one, and jurors agreed.

Seiler ordered commitment, and Bohannan appealed to the Ninth District.

Justices Horton, David Gaultney and Charles Kreger reversed Seiler and remanded the case for a new trial.

"The extent to which Dr. Shursen did not possess the same forensic training and experience as the state's experts are matters the jury may consider in weighing her testimony," Horton wrote.

"Even if we or the trial court disagrees with an expert's opinion, the question the court resolves in determining the admissibility of the expert's testimony is whether the expert's testimony is based on a reliable foundation and whether the testimony is relevant to the case," he wrote.

George Lang represented Bohannan.

Melinda Fletcher represented the state.

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