In a recent California sexual assault case before a state appeals court, the court held that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted expert testimony from a doctor who testified that only a very small percentage of child sexual abuse allegations are false. The defendant in the case was charged with 12 counts of lewd acts against a child younger than 14 years old under Penal Code 288(b)(1), and one count of continuous sexual abuse under 14 under Penal Code 288.5(a).
The defendant’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but when he was subsequently retried for the same crimes he was convicted on all counts. He was sentenced to a total term of 104 years. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge improperly admitted expert testimony about child sexual abuse.
A trial court normally has significant discretion in deciding whether to admit or exclude expert testimony. In child sexual abuse cases, state courts have generally held that expert testimony on rape trauma syndrome may be admissible in order to dispel misconceptions about rape and rape victims. It can explain, for example, why there was a delay in reporting the abuse. However, such testimony is not warranted in all cases. For example, in another case in which the victim reported the attack soon after it happened, and the victim had a severe emotional reaction, testimony about rape trauma syndrome did not serve the purpose of rebutting misconceptions and should not have been admitted.
In this case, a child sexual abuse expert testified for the prosecution about traits and behaviors that can be exhibited by child victims of sexual abuse. The expert also testified that false allegations of child sexual abuse occur “very infrequently or rarely,” and occur often during a child custody dispute. The expert further testified that one study found false allegations were made in only about four percent of cases.
The appeals court decided that much of the expert’s testimony was properly admitted, because the victim in this case waited several years before reporting the abuse. However, the court explained that the evidence about false allegations should not have been admitted. The court reasoned that this testimony was improper because it had the effect of indicating to the jury that there “was at least a 94 percent chance that any given child who claimed to have been sexually abused was telling the truth.”
Despite this, the court found the court’s errors were “harmless.” The appeals court noted that the testimony was brief, and the defendant was able to rebut the evidence through his own expert witness. The defendant’s expert testified that the four percent cited was only of cases in which there was actual proof that the allegations were false, and that there was no way to know the actual percentage. Therefore, because the errors likely did not affect the outcome of the defendant’s trial, the appeals court upheld the verdict.
Contact a Pleasanton Criminal Defense Lawyer
The government may try to use any evidence it can against individuals who are charged with a crime. But not all evidence is admissible. The California Penal Code and the criminal justice system can be complex and difficult to navigate without a seasoned attorney. Pleasanton criminal defense attorney John W. Noonan has over 45 years of experience handling serious felony offenses, including California sexual offenses against children. With offices in Dublin and Manteca, he serves individuals throughout the Tri-Valley area. Our firm can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week through our online form, or you can call us at 925-463-3340.