Dec 19, 2016

Was grand jury witness a 'cult specialist' in Chadwicks Church case?

Word of Life Christian Church
Why did a so-called "cult specialist" and "deprogrammer" testify before a Oneida County Grand Jury in the Word of Life Christian Church case and what impact did that testimony have on the grand jury?

By Micaela Parker
Utica Observer DispatchDecember 19, 2016

UTICA - Why did a so-called "cult specialist" and "deprogrammer" testify before an Oneida County grand jury in the Word of Life Christian Church case and what impact did that testimony have on the grand jury?

An October motion filed by the attorney of the church's Pastor Tiffanie Irwin - who is scheduled to be sentenced today - sought to exclude the testimony of Rick Ross at trial. But because Irwin pleaded guilty, it has rendered the discussion moot for now.

Meanwhile, an attorney associated with the case said there are other issues at play with how plea offers extended to Irwin and some of her co-defendants were handled.

Irwin pleaded guilty in October to third-degree manslaughter in the death of Lucas Leonard and felony second-degree assault for the beating of brother Christopher Leonard in connection with a counseling session at the Chadwicks Church on the evening of Oct. 11, 2015.

Nine people were charged with varying degrees of involvement in the beatings.

Because of an ongoing gag order, attorney Kurt Schultz declined to comment on his motions in the public document, which was obtained by the Observer-Dispatch.

"The opinion of a self-proclaimed 'cult expert,' who appears to have only a high school diploma, has never been accepted in a New York court and is by its nature novel," Schultz wrote in his motion. He added that there is "no official discipline of cultic studies" and alleges that the witness is a "convicted felon and has a history of psychiatric treatment."

He also wrote that the "study of religious cults and coercive persuasion" is, as a matter of law, "insufficiently scientific" to be presented to a jury.

The motion states that the witness testified before the grand jury, but it does not provide any explanation regarding the substance of his testimony.

Oneida County District Attorney McNamara declined to comment, saying it would be a felony crime under the penal code for him to disclose who testified at a grand jury or the substance of such testimony.

But in a responding answer to Schultz's motion, something called an expert witness disclosure, McNamara describes Ross as the founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute. The document further stated that "it is anticipated that he will testify consistently with his grand jury testimony."

Ross' professional resume is available on the Cult Education Institute's website, which states that he has been "accepted" as an expert witness in the U.S. Federal Court and 10 states and submitted testimony in another four states - none of which are New York. It also identifies a number of presentations he has given at various conferences, as well as books and publications he as authored concerning cults.

Attorney Frank Policelli, who represented defendant Traci Irwin - the pastor's mother - said a person could speculate "a million different reasons" why Ross was called. He said the witness never gave his opinion to the grand jury as to whether he thought the church was a cult.

"I think they wanted to give the impression that this church was a cult," Policelli said. "(Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara) came right out and said that. They put out a witness that talks about cults, never gives an opinion that this church is a cult, and calls another witness to come out and give the impression that this could be a cult to her. They got their indictment."

Once a defendant pleads guilty, things are "pretty much final," Policelli explained, despite any concerns about how things were handled in the grand jury.

"Unless you could challenge the voluntariness of the plea, whatever errors happen in the grand jury don't matter anymore," he said. "You never have an avenue for an appellate court to review it because usually whatever errors take place in the grand jury are usually cured at the trial. So if there's no trial and somebody pleads then any errors that occur in the grand jury are essentially moot. 'Why don't you just go to trial if you're complaining?' That's going to be the response."

In order to be called as an expert witness, an attorney has to prove that there are questions that require expertise. In order to prove someone is an expert, a 'curriculum vitae' or professional resume containing their degrees, honors and certifications need to be provided.

"I'm not sure if he was called as an expert, but why his relevancy is questioned is you have to prove there is a field that you need expertise on that has experts," Policelli said. "There's a whole area of the law where you have to disclose your expert disclosures, provide a CV of the expert and what's the field he's an expert in - that was never provided (at the grand jury.)"

Policelli said the broader issue of the Word of Life Christian Church case is multiple defendants having "packaged plea bargain deals." In the case, four defendants - Tiffanie Irwin, her brother Joseph Irwin, Linda Morey and her son David Morey - were given an offer: All four must accept the pleas or all four of them would have to go to trial.

All four of them opted to take the plea offer.

Policelli described that plea contingency as "problematic," noting that the Supreme Court has not defined the scope of constitutional rights in the plea-bargaining process.

"It certainly is an issue that needs to be explored as to where you draw the line between fair plea bargaining and coercion," Policelli said. "That's something we really need to look into."

Follow @OD_Parker on Twitter or call her at 315-792-5063.

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