Tag Archives: child abuse expert witness

Pennsylvania Law Allows Victim Psychology Expert Witnesses to Testify in Child Abuse Trials

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.

Medical Expert Witnesses Duel in Child Abuse Murder Trial

Expert witnesses in child injury and abuse disagreed with each other on the stand this week as both prosecutors and defense lawyers relied on medical experts in the murder trial of a Madison, Wisconsin man accused of killing his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son.  During the course of this week’s testimony, expert witnesses dueled on the nature of the child’s injuries and the cause of his tragic death.

Wisconsin Man Charged with Killing 5-year-old

Dakota Black, 25, has been charged with first degree reckless homicide in the death of 5-year-old Brayden Turnbill who died from severe brain injury.  According to prosecutors Black was responsible for watching Turnbill, his girlfriend’s son, when the child came home from school, during which time he fatally abused the boy.  Turnbill was found unconscious by his mother when she returned from work, and was unresponsive to efforts to revive him.  He died in the hospital three days later.

After investigating the incident and talking to the medical examiner, prosecutors formally charged Black alleging that he abused the child so severely that Turnbill suffered fatal brain injuries.  In order to support their contention that Turnbill’s injuries were caused by physical abuse by Black instead of an accidental fall as the defendant claimed, prosecutors called a variety of medical expert witnesses who alleged the boy’s injuries were the result of child abuse.

Prosecution Expert Witnesses Testify to Signs of Child Abuse

Early in the Dakota Black homicide trial, prosecutors called to the stand medical examiner Kristin Roman who was responsible for examining Brayden’s body after his death.  According to Dr. Roman, the contusions suffered by the child were not suggestive of an accidental fall, but instead were consistent with signs of child abuse.  Dr. Roman told jurors that Brayden Turnbill died of blunt force trauma that was not accidentally caused.

The next medical expert witness to testify for the prosecution was Dr. Barbara Knox of the American Family Children’s Hospital Child Protection Program who testified that Brayden was likely unconscious at the time of his injuries and did not have a period of awareness between the time his head trauma occurred and his injury.  Dr. Knox, who was present for surgery that attempted to save Brayden’s life, told jurors that the nature of his injuries suggested the brain damage occurred immediately after he suffered a physical blow to the head.  The timing of Brayden’s injuries is critical because defense attorneys for Black allege that the boy could have suffered the trauma at any time – including the period before Black had sole responsibility for watching him.  In response to questioning about the possibility that Brayden’s injuries could have happened before a traumatic event, Dr. Knox held firm and reiterated that in her expert medical opinion the nature of the boy’s injuries precluded a lucid interval between the blunt force and his brain damage.

Finally, prosecutors called to the stand Dr. Wilbur Smith, a pediatric radiologist who is an expert in blunt force trauma.  Dr. Smith, who has testified as an expert witness in over 100 child abuse trials across the country, told jurors, “This was a very major injury, so it would have taken a lot of force to cause this injury.”  Going further, Dr. Smith said that it was highly unlikely that the force required to cause Brayden’s injuries was accidental because it was so severe.

After the prosecution closed its expert witness heavy case, defense attorneys for Dakota Black mounted a response with an expert witness to counter the assertion that Braydon’s injuries were definitely caused by child abuse.

Defense Uses Expert Witness to Counter Claims of Child Abuse

Defense attorneys for Dakota Black began their case by calling Dr. John Plunkett to the stand to counter prosecution experts who told jurors it was highly unlikely that Brayden Turnbill’s injuries were accidental.   Dr. Plunkett, an experienced expert witness in the field of forensic pathology who has testified in more than 150 trials, told jurors that Brayden could have died from an accidental fall and questioned the validity of the prosecution experts’ conclusions.

Dr. Plunkett directly contradicted testimony from Dr. Knox and told jurors that it was possible Brayden experienced a lucid interval between the trauma that caused his injury and the severe brain damage that he suffered.  Under Plunkett’s theory, Brayden could have been injured at any time – even the time before Black had sole responsibility for the boy’s care.  Dr. Plunkett further testified that the boy could have had a latent injury in his brain that was aggravated by significantly less force than other expert witnesses said was required for Braydon’s fatal injury.  Although Dr. Plunkett did not hypothesize about a cause of death, he told jurors that it was reasonable to doubt conclusions that Braydon Turnbill died of intentionally caused blunt force trauma.

Pediatric Expert Witness Testifies in Texas Child Burn Trial

An expert in pediatric care testified this week in a trial of a 26-year-old Texas man charged with intentionally exposing his infant son to scalding hot water.  Prosecutors called the expert pediatrician to the stand to help prove that the child’s injuries were not accidental, but the result of an intentional abusive act.

Texas Man Charged with Bathing Child in Scalding Water

Efe Omo Idehen, 26, of Abilene, Texas is on trial for child abuse for allegedly exposing his then 11-month-old son a bath with scalding hot water three years ago.  According to prosecutors the defendant was well aware that the water temperature was dangerously hot for an infant, but put his child in the tub anyway because he was frustrated with the crying and the fact that he had to pay child support.  Idehen admitted during the investigation that the boy was crying while he was in the tub, but told police that he did not realize the full extent of the damage until he took the baby out of the water after several minutes.  The child has since received several surgeries and skin grafts to repair the severe burns, but has recovered from the injuries caused by being exposed to scalding hot water.

Prosecutors offered a plea agreement for 50-years in prison, but Idehen rejected the deal and instead asked the court for probation.  With the defendant’s counter-offer unacceptable, prosecutors started trial this week by presenting police and medical reports along with gruesome pictures of the scene of the incident and the infant’s injuries.  To bolster their contention that Idehen was fully aware of his actions prosecutors added testimony from a pediatric medicine expert witness who explained to jurors that the injuries were consistent with signs of child abuse.

Pediatric Expert Witness Testifies in Infant Burn Trial

Prosecutors in Abilene, Texas called a pediatrician with a specialty in child abuse to the stand to tell jurors that injuries to an 11-month-old infant were consistent with signs of abuse.  According to the expert, the pattern of burns on the baby’s legs were symmetrical, which suggests a deliberate action of putting the child in the water and holding him there.  The expert told jurors that had the baby been accidentally exposed to the scalding water then he would likely have had asymmetrical burn patterns which would be consistent with a fall or some other accidental entry.

The child abuse expert also pointed out that the infant did not suffer any splash marks, further suggesting a slow and deliberate placement in the water rather than a quick and unanticipated event.  During testimony, jurors also heard that the presence of a water line on the child’s skin indicated that his exposure to the scalding hot tub was not accidental, but intentional and part of a controlled action.  Finally, the prosecution’s pediatric expert witness told the jury that he had examined the now-toddler just before the trial began and saw skin grafts that indicated the burns were severe, deep, and damaging to the underlying tissue in the infant’s legs and feet.

Attorneys for Idehen have not revealed their plan for defense, but will likely focus their efforts on arguing their client was not fully aware of the harm he was causing until it was too late.  Idehen testified that it was common for his son to cry, so when he cried in the tub it did not indicate to the defendant that something was seriously wrong.  Idehen has not revealed whether or not he will take the stand in his own defense, but prosecutors will likely conclude their case in the next couple days which will give the defense an opportunity to present a case later this week.