One of the most challenging aspects of many childhood sexual assault prosecutions is that victims often do not report their abuse immediately. This is due to a number of factors, including the way that children process the trauma of the assault. Delayed reporting is relatively common in childhood sexual abuse cases, yet it may be confusing for juries. Individuals who are not familiar with the impact of trauma on a person may not understand why a victim will wait to report abuse. Expert testimony about the phenomenon of delayed reporting can be particularly helpful in building a case, as the expert can explain why a person might not report an assault immediately.
Unfortunately, not all courts allow expert witnesses to testify on this topic, finding that it does not have a scientific basis. That was the basis of a ruling made by a trial court judge in Missouri — a decision that was ultimately struck down by the Missouri Court of Appeals in State Ex. Rel. Gardner v. Wright.
In this case, a man was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault against an eight year old girl, D.M. She did not disclose the abuse until she was fifteen years old. According to an Irvine victims’ rights attorney, the prosecutor attempted to introduce an expert witness to testify about the behavior of children disclosing sexual abuse, including the frequency with which children delay reporting. The defense attorney moved to exclude the expert witness, arguing that her testimony was just based on her observations and did not meet the test for scientific reliability. The trial judge agreed, finding that there was not a scientific basis for the testimony and that the jury could understand the reason for delayed reporting without expert witness testimony.
On appeal, the Court found that Missouri had recently adopted a new standard for scientific evidence — the standard followed by federal courts. It stated that it has long been held that “…generalized testimony about the behaviors of children alleging sexual abuse is specialized knowledge and that it is helpful to juries.” The Court further held that the behavior of sexually abused children is beyond the knowledge of the ordinary juror, including the behavior of delayed disclosure. Ultimately, the Court believed that the testimony of an expert witness on this matter was “specialized knowledge” that would help the jury understand the evidence. For this reason, the trial court erred in excluding the expert witness’ testimony.
As an Irvine victims’ rights attorney can explain, this ruling is incredibly important. It establishes that expert witness testimony is necessary and helpful in child sexual abuse cases, particularly with regards to delayed disclosure and how a victim of sexual assault might act. An expert witness can help a jury understand the mechanism of why some child sexual abuse victims behave in a certain way, including why they might not report their assault to a family member, teacher, or other adult right away. This will likely be crucial in helping prosecutors prove that a victim’s allegations are credible — and getting justice for the victim.
If you have been a victim of a crime in California, including child sexual assault, we are here for you. At Justice 4 Crime Victims, we devoted to assisting Californians just like you. We are fierce advocates who will stand by you through each step of the process. Contact us today at 949-585-9055 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free initial consultation with an Irvine victims’ rights attorney.