District Court Judge in Hutaree Case Rejects Government’s Conspiracy Theory Expert

An interesting opinion in United States v. Stone (E.D. Mich. Jan. 30, 2012); this isn’t my field, so I can’t opine on it with confidence, but the decision strikes me as likely right. Here’s an excerpt:

On November 30, 2011, the Government notified Defendants that it intended to call an “Academic Expert,” Professor Michael Barkun, to testify concerning his research into conspiracy belief and theories. In response to Defendants’ motion to preclude Dr. Barkun’s testimony, the Government admitted that a hearing pursuant to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993) ( “Daubert hearing”) was necessary to test the admissibility of Professor Barkun’s testimony.

Before the hearing, the Government provided Defendants with a longer, more concrete Rule 16(a)(1)(G) summary of Dr. Barkun’s proposed testimony, containing notice that Dr. Barkun will testify about conspiracy subcultures, beliefs and theories; and theories such as “stigmatized knowledge,” “New World Order” and the “Illuminati.” The Government also intends to ask Dr. Barkun questions to elicit conspiracy theorists’ beliefs about the history behind Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) detention centers and the role of the internet in spreading conspiracy belief literature and thought. Dr. Barkun also plans to testify about significant events in conspiracy belief and how conspiracy theorists view these events. The events listed in the Rule 16 summary include: Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.

The Government states:

As he testifies about each of the concepts above, Professor Barkun will also be asked whether he has reviewed some of the materials seized during the search warrants executed at the defendants’ residences and some of the recorded conversations and whether this material is consistent with the conspiracy beliefs about which he is testifying. The government found a great deal of material in numerous locations which espouse these beliefs, shedding light upon the defendants’ intent and motive, as well as linking the co-conspirators to the goal of the charged conspiracy in Count One.

… Dr. Barkun’s testimony will not assist the jury, as required by Rule 702…. At the Daubert hearing, the Government insisted it would use Dr. Barkun’s testimony as evidence of Defendants’ “intent and motive” to forcibly and violently oppose the Government under the Seditious Conspiracy count. However, the Government failed to connect the proposed expert testimony to the issues in dispute under that count.

For instance, Defendants asked the professor whether there is any literature on what people who read the conspiracy belief books, charts and other items seized from some of the Defendants’ homes, do with the information contained there, i.e, whether studies demonstrate whether these individuals lead normal lives or act out violently pursuant to their beliefs. Dr. Barkun replied that he is not aware of such studies. Similarly, when asked whether it was possible to predict what a conspiracy theorist will ultimately do with his or her beliefs, Dr. Barkin admitted it was impossible to predict.

Dr. Barkun could not opine on the number of conspiracy belief-related books a person must have, to become a conspiracy theorist, except to say it would have to be a lot. Defendants made the point that Dan Brown, the popular author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, writes in his books about the same concepts and beliefs in the literature on which the professor’s testimony is based. Yet, it would be inaccurate to suggest that everyone who reads Dan Brown is a conspiracy theorist. More importantly, even if they are, the Court cannot make the additional required leap that conspiracy theorists will commit acts of violence simply because of their beliefs, or something they read in a Dan Brown novel.

Simply put, the nexus between the testimony the Government proffers through Dr. Barkun and the crimes charged is speculative at best. Dr. Barkun’s explanation of conspiracy theories and his opinion on whether or not items seized from Defendants’ homes are consistent with these theories will not aid the jury in determining whether Defendants agreed and intended to forcibly oppose the United States Government. As Defendants argued at the hearing, the crime charged is one of action, not advocacy. It is neither necessary nor sufficient that Defendants believe in conspiracy theories to be found guilty of Seditious Conspiracy.

This is not a case about the New World Order, the Illuminati, stigmatized knowledge or any other conspiracy theory or concept. This is so even though some of these concepts might be tangentially related to the crime charged, as stated in the indictment. (See, e.g., Doc. # 293, Second Superseding Indictment at ¶ 8 (alleging that the Hutaree views its enemies as participants in the “New World Order,” which the Hutaree intends to oppose by force)). It is a case about an alleged agreement to violently overthrow the Government. There is no place for Dr. Barkun’s proposed testimony, which the Court must treat with more caution than that of a lay witness because, as an expert, he need not have personal knowledge about the case to testify.

The absence of fit between Dr. Barkun’s proposed testimony and the issues is exemplified by some of the topics covered in the Government’s Rule 16(a)(1)(G) summary and during the hearing. These include: the history of FEMA detention centers; the standoff at Ruby Ridge; the standoff at Waco, Texas; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. (“9/11 attacks”). The Government does not allege that Defendants were involved in these occurrences; they are not relevant to the facts alleged in the indictment.

The Court is unpersuaded that these topics are relevant even though the Government proposes only to show that conspiracy theorists believe the United States Government was behind these events. Dr. Barkun admitted that there are multiple and distinctive descriptions of the terms and concepts addressed at the hearing and that the Government’s summary of his testimony does not include them all. He admitted that not all conspiracy theorists hold the same views and that some may hold some of the views described in the summary, but not others. As explained more fully below, exploration into these topics would not only lead the trial way off-track, but would likely confuse and mislead the jury….