Tag Archives: child sex abuse victim

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.

LA School District Dismisses Attorney who Used Controversial Expert Witness

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is transferring cases away from its primary law firm after evaluating the lead counsel’s defense tactics in sexual abuse lawsuits against school officials. One instance contributing to the LAUSD decision to change attorneys involved controversial use of an expert witness in defense of a lawsuit filed by an elementary school girl with a low IQ who was victim of sexual assault in an LA area school.

LAUSD Attorney Uses Controversial Expert

In May of 2013, attorneys representing the Los Angeles Unified School District defended the district against sexual abuse allegations filed by a 9-year-old girl with a low IQ who claimed she was the victim of assault by a boy at her school. The LAUSD was found financially liable for failing to protect the girl, and during the penalty stage of the civil trial the lead attorney for the school district, W. Keith Wyatt, made an interesting, and controversial, expert witness decision. Wyatt called to the stand Dr. Stan Katz who theorized that the young girl’s low IQ may act as protection from the trauma of sexual assault, thus warranting fewer damages from the school district.

Dr. Katz, a psychology expert witness, testified that the girl’s IQ, between 64 and 70, could suggest that she lacked the mental capacity to suffer serious depression or trauma from the incident. During his expert testimony, Katz responded to a question about whether or not the girl’s mental disability could act as a protective factor by saying, “There’s a relationship between intelligence and depression. What happens is the more you think about things, you can ruminate, you can focus on things, you can look at the complexities of the matter and become more depressed.” Although Dr. Katz did not deny the girl suffered trauma, his testimony indicated that her suffering was reduced because of her mental inability to dwell on her experience.

Separate experts who reviewed Dr. Katz’s testimony have openly disagreed with him, going so far as to argue that in some cases a mental disability could enhance the trauma that victims experience. More significantly to the LAUSD, the jury was unconvinced and ordered a significant damage award.

Jury Awards $1.4 Million to LA Girl Sexually Assaulted at School

According to David Ring, attorney for the young victim, “the jury was offended, they were disgusted and they thought it was unbelievable that an expert witness could come in and say something like that.” Accordingly, jurors awarded the girl and her family $1.4 million in damages, which is significantly higher than the $10,000 – $12,000 Wyatt suggested. Dr. Katz’s expert testimony in last year’s case not only was unsuccessful in arguing for a lesser damage award, but seemed to have caused the LAUSD position harm by repulsing jurors to the idea he advanced during trial.

LAUSD Changes Legal Counsel

Last week, the LAUSD cut ties with attorney Wyatt citing statements he made in another sexual abuse lawsuit which argued that a 14-year-old girl was mature enough to consent to sex with her 28-year-old teacher. Although the decision is over a year removed from his controversial use of Dr. Katz as an expert witness, the lawyer’s dismissal seems to be the result of a sweeping analysis of his defense strategy in sexual assault lawsuits. Wyatt’s recent comments dismissing the 14-year-old victim of teacher abuse and his use of an expert witness to argue that a 9-year-old with a low IQ suffered less trauma from sexual assault can serve to remind other attorneys in similar situations that there is a fine line between a legitimate argument and statements that will alienate and offend a jury to the detriment of the client.


Expert Witness Critiques Police Questioning of Child Accuser

A psychology expert witness specializing in questioning child victims of sexual assault testified on behalf of a California defendant, offering a critical analysis of police investigation and interrogation techniques when interacting with young sex abuse accusers.  The testimony represents a growing trend of use of expert witnesses to present psychological concepts designed to assist jurors make legal decisions.

Psychologist Called as Expert Witness in Child Sexual Abuse Trial

Dr. Bradley McAuliff, a professor of psychology at CSU Northridge, was called by defendant Clinton Dean Grosse to cast doubt on the sexual abuse allegations against him.  Grosse is on trial in Butte County, California for allegedly committing felony continuous sexual child abuse, a charge that requires prosecutors demonstrate the defendant committed three or more sexual acts against a child under the age of 14 over a period of at least three months.

Grosse’s accuser, now in her teens, testified earlier in the trial that he forced her to engage in oral sex and masturbation, and rubbed his genitals on her clothing.  The alleged victim was in high school when she reported the incident, which she claimed happened while she was in middle school.  Grosse allegedly performed these acts at his residence, forcing the victim to engage in several sexual acts in violation of the law.  When she was in high school, the girl wrote down her accusations in a letter to her mother before reporting the incident to police.

Dr. McAuliff was tasked with analyzing the process employed by police to question the young accuser, and help suggest reasonable doubt by pointing out aspects of the investigation that gave opportunity for the alleged victim to misremember the facts.

Psychology Expert Analyzes Police Interview Techniques of Child Accuser

In his testimony, Dr. McAuliff established that, although he did not interview the child accuser directly, he reviewed the police reports and detailed transcripts of the interviews in order to get a clear understanding of what transpired during the Grosse investigation.  In response to questioning from the defense attorney, McAuliff testified that his research indicates direct or leading questions from a police interviewer can lead a child to simply agree with whatever they are asked, and struggle to deny false or inaccurate statements.

Relevant to the Grosse case, Dr. McAuliff pointed out that police investigators asked direct questions from the girl’s letter to her mother, including potentially false facts it contained.  With each interviewer using the letter, the story the police wanted to tell could have been easily developed through direct and suggestive questioning.  According to McAuliff, the proper way for police to interview a child accuser is to act as if the officers do not know the story, and rely on the child’s open ended narrative to build the case.  During the investigation into Grosse’s alleged sexual crimes, police often asked direct questions that the girl agreed to, which could have resulted in exaggerated or false statements.

Dr. McAuliff acknowledged that the police did take positive action by encouraging the alleged victim to correct them should statements be false, but overall he was critical of the approach police questioners took throughout the investigation.  McAuliff was also sure to point out that just because an interviewer improperly questions a child, it does not mean the child gave a false answer.  The faulty police techniques simply made the possibility of false information more likely, which Grosse’s defense team hopes will create sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit.