Legal Memorandum: Medical Examination of a Witness in NJ

Issue: Under New Jersey law, can an independent medical examination provide relevant evidence of a key witness’s mental condition and his or her ability to tell the truth?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Medical examination; Key witness's mental condition; Relevant evidence
Jurisdiction: New Jersey
Cited Cases: 49 N.J. 286; 514 A.2d 1287; 143 A.2d 530; 229 A.2d 657; 27 N.J. 500
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 09/01/2000

A court has the inherent power to grant a request that a key witness be examined by a psychologist or psychiatrist.  See State v. Butler, 27 N.J. 500, 143 A.2d 530, 553 (1958).  The limits on a court’s discretion cannot be clearly defined, but a mental examination of a key witness requires a substantial showing of need and justification.  Id., 143 A.2d at 556.  In State v. R.W., 104 N.J. 14, 514 A.2d 1287 (1986), the Supreme Court addressed the Butler decision in the context of whether a 3 ½ year old was competent to testify in a sexual-abuse case.  It stated that “there must be a showing of some deviation from acceptable norms, such as an identifiable or clinical psychiatric or similar disorder, beyond the realm of those human conditions that ordinary experience would confirm as normal.”  Id., 514 A.2d at 1291.  Confinement to a mental institution is an indicator of such a situation.  Id. (citing State v. Franklin, 49 N.J. 286, 229 A.2d 657 (1967) (mental examination appropriate when principal state witness had been committed to a mental institution). 

Also, there must be something “peculiar, unique or abnormal about the young witness that would influence the witness’s competence, or raise unusual difficulties in assessing the witness’s credibility.”  Id.  Evidence of “a mental or emotional disorder, aberrational behavior, inappropriate conduct, bizarre attitudes” will support a motion for a mental examination. R.W., 514 A.2d at […]

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