A November court case in Pennsylvania has affirmed and set into effect a 2012 state law which will allow testimony from psychology expert witnesses who are able to explain why child victims of sexual assault delay reporting alleged crimes for months or even years after incident. The law, which is a direct response to the Jerry Sandusky abuse case, will give jurors the opportunity to hear experts explain delays which are often key points of emphasis for defense attorneys in child abuse criminal cases.
Pennsylvania Law allows Child Psychology Experts to Testify
In the wake of the high profile child sexual assault trial of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky – during which multiple expert witnesses about child sex abuse were denied the opportunity to testify during the prosecution – Pennsylvania legislators drafted and passed a law which specifically permitted experts in child sexual violence to testify during criminal trial. The law was designed to educate jurors about victim psychology which may explain delays in crime reporting or inconsistent testimony that laypeople on a jury would be unlikely to understand. Child psychology expert witnesses would not be allowed to tell jurors that victim behavior suggests guilt or innocence, but would serve to context in which to interpret the facts presented at trial.
Efforts to pass the law have been stymied by both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state court system which specifically rejected similar efforts to use psychology expert witnesses to explain victim behavior during previous trials. With a handful of charges against Sandusky unable to proceed due to questions about victim credibility giving the law’s supporters a publically sympathetic argument the bill finally garnered enough support in 2012 to become law. In 2014 the law was subject to a legal challenge by defense attorneys who claimed the legislature did not have the authority to impose evidentiary rules on the court system, particularly ones which directly countered previous state court rulings.
Child Psychology Expert Law Survives Pennsylvania Legal Challenge
During the 2013 trial of Jose Luis Olivo, on trial for sexually assaulting a young girl starting when she was 4 and continuing until she was 7, the prosecution attempted to present testimony from an expert in child victim psychology. Defense attorneys for Olivo objected to the expert testimony arguing two points: first, the legislature did not have the constitutional authority to pass laws dictating rules of evidence, and second, prior Pennsylvania case law specifically precluded such a law by disallowing victim psychology expert testimony. The trial court agreed with defense attorneys and disallowed the proposed expert witness testimony despite the new state law allowing it, setting up a series of appeals which eventually brought the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In November of last year, Pennsylvania’s highest court released an opinion which first validated the legislature’s authority to pass laws establishing judicial rules of evidence and second considered recent advancements in social science to conclude that the specific type of expert testimony proposed by the new law was admissible during trial providing the experts do not speak about the particulars of the case facts. The majority opinion pointed out many evidentiary rules which have origins in statutory authority, suggesting that Pennsylvania lawmakers have demonstrated authority to impose evidentiary rules on the judiciary. Further, the majority found prior case law which excluded psychology was distinguishable because it featured a different type of evidence and was analyzed with a different understanding of the nature and benefit of victim psychology expert testimony.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Dissent Highlights Opposition to Psychology Expert Witnesses
A lone dissenting judge to the majority opinion argued Pennsylvania should continue to prevent victim psychology experts from testifying in child sexual abuse cases. Citing fears that such testimony would turn trials in a battle of experts which would either serve to confuse jurors or alter the presumption of innocence and burden of proof by telling jurors how they should interpret facts, the dissenting opinion argued that jurors should be presented will all available evidence and decide witness or victim credibility.
While the dissent’s concerns are shared by many in the judiciary who have resisted expansion of behavioral science and psychology expert testimony, mounting evidence from psychological research which suggests juries are largely unable to make sophisticated assessments about behavior has begun to influence a slow shift towards permitting behavioral science testimony during criminal trials. With the new law in Pennsylvania affirmed, prosecutors will start presenting victim psychology expert testimony during trial.