Florida Court of Appeals Reverses Life Sentence for 16-year-old Defendant, Citing Expert Opinion on Adolescent Brain Science

Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation

Florida Fourth District Court of Appeals (link)

In 2008, after conviction for two counts of kidnapping and sexual battery on young victims, 16 year old Daryl Tindall was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment. The sentencing judge relied on his own assessment of Tindall’s mental state, disagreeing with the testimony of three expert witnesses. In January 2021, a Florida court of appeals reversed and remanded the case for resentencing before a different judge, finding that the judge’s “unsupported opinions” were “directly contrary to the testimony of all three expert witnesses.”

At the sentencing hearing, Tindall had called three expert witnesses. All three agreed that he did not have a diagnosable sexual disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or any antisocial traits or sexually deviant behaviors.

The first, a licensed psychologist, testified that “she did not see typical behavior associated with an increased risk for recidivism.” She further noted that “M]ost adolescent males who commit sex offenses do not go on to commit further sex offenses; it’s a myth that a juvenile grows into an adult sex offender”

The second expert, a neuropsychologist, testified on the differences between the adolescent and adult brain. She testified that Tindall exhibited behavioral stability through completion of his GED in prison and the lack of comorbid diagnoses signifies a low risk for recidivism. A third expert, a clinical psychologist, agreed, noting that “thousands of studies” showed that juveniles often “spontaneously stop” “even without treatment…due to maturation.”

Still, the trial court determined it could “treat expert testimony like that testimony of any witness” and “believe or disbelieve all or any part of any witness testimony.” The trial court found that the expert testimony was at odds with its own “common sense inferences” based on the acts of the defendant and the nature of the crime. The judge wrote that “[n]ormal people, without sexual disorders, do not rape little girls.”

The appellate court determined that the trial court erred in producing a judgement directly contradictory to the testimony of all three expert witnesses. Although trial judges have discretion when considering expert testimony, the appellate court ruled that the trial court did not have a rational basis to substitute its own interpretation of the facts for expert opinions regarding a medical diagnosis. The case was reversed and remanded for sentencing before a different judge.

Citation: Daryl Levon Tindall v. State of Florida, 310 So.3d 95 (2021)

Keywords: Florida, adolescent brain, young adult, expert testimony, life sentence, sexual assault

This post is the 92nd post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School