“The trial court excluded evidence of the defendant’s particular circumstances as irrelevant to the objective reasonable person standard for duress. Did the court of appeals err in finding an abuse of discretion by the trial court?”
Moreno and three others were arrested in connection with an aggravated kidnapping and murder. In police interviews, Moreno claimed that his participation in the crime had been under duress from the principle actor, who threatened him with a gun. In support of that defense, Moreno offered expert witness testimony that, some years earlier, Moreno’s father had been murdered in front of him during a home invasion and that he had developed PTSD that affected his perception of the dangerousness that the principal actor presented to him at the time of the offense. The trial court held this evidence was not relevant to guilt and excluded it from that phase. The jury rejected Moreno’s duress defense and convicted him of aggravated kidnapping.
On appeal, Moreno challenged the exclusion of this evidence. Analogizing it to battered-woman’s-syndrome testimony and citing federal and state court rulings on that issue, the court of appeals held that the excluded testimony was relevant to duress. Specifically, the testimony identified Moreno’s “particular circumstances” that could have aided the jury in assessing the reasonableness of his actions. The court of appeals rejected the State’s argument that it was altering the objective standard for duress, which requires that the force or threat “render a person of reasonable firmness incapable of resisting.” Tex. Penal Code § 8.05(c).
The State argues that the court of appeals failed to apply an abuse of discretion standard to the trial court’s evidentiary ruling and merely substituted its own judgment. It references the Court of Criminal Appeals’s unpublished decision in Cobb v. State, No. AP-74, 875, 2007 WL 274206 (Tex. Crim. App. Jan. 31, 2007), which rejected a similar exclusion claim because the duress inquiry is whether a “person of reasonable firmness” would not have resisted, “not whether this particular defendant could have resisted in light of cognitive weaknesses, depression, chemical dependency, and the neglect he suffered as a child.” The State also contends that some of the cases cited by the court of appeals are inapplicable because their duress standard follows the Model Penal Code’s “person of reasonable firmness in [the defendant’s] situation” standard, which Texas has not adopted.