A PROPERLY QUALIFIED POLICE OFFICER MAY TESTIFY TO FACTS OF A SEXUAL ASSAULT AS WELL AS A TYPICAL VICTIM’S BEHAVIORS AND RESPONSES TO SEXUAL ABUSE; HOWEVER, THE OFFICER MAY NOT OFFER AN OPINION ON THE CREDIBILITY OF ANOTHER WITNESS (That’s the jury’s job 😉 )
Jones was found guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a person under sixteen years of age, unlawful contact with a minor, aggravated indecent assault, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person under sixteen years of age.
On appeal to the Superior Court, Jones argued that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing a detective to testify that child sexual assault victims are often unable to recall specific details and dates of sexual assaults. Specifically, Jones claimed that this evidence constituted expert testimony because it was not within the scope of knowledge possessed by the average layperson but was rather based on the detective’s specialized training and experience concerning child victim responses and behaviors to sexual assault. Therefore, absent qualification as an expert witness, the trial court should have precluded this testimony.
In a divided, unpublished memorandum opinion, a majority of the Superior Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by permitting the detective, without first being qualified as an expert witness, to provide opinion testimony about the inability of child victims of sexual abuse to recall specific dates and details of sexual assaults.
On appeal to the PA Supreme Court, the Justices concluded that “the opinion testimony by the detective on the inability of child victims of sexual abuse to recall specific dates and details was based upon scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702 [regarding Expert Testimony].” Specifically, the court held that “testimony from a law enforcement officer concerning child victims’ typical behaviors and responses to sexual abuse, when based on that officer’s training and experience, falls within the realm of expert testimony” and the detective’s testimony was therefore improperly admitted at trial on that issue.
The Supreme Court also concluded that the detective was not required to testify solely as an expert. He could also testify as a lay witness. However, Notwithstanding his ability to testify as a fact witness, the admission of his testimony in the form of expert testimony, in the opinion of the Supreme Court, allowed the jury “to draw an inference that the victim’s behavior in this case was consistent with similarly situated victims, without any of the heightened reliability concerns that accompany expert testimony.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that they could not “say with certainty that the jury did not place undue weight on the testimony” and the admission of the “expert” portion of the detective’s testimony was NOT harmless error.
The Supreme Court discussed the interplay between Section 5920 of the Judicial Code (which explicitly provides that a properly qualified expert may testify to facts and opinions regarding specific types of victim responses and behaviors in certain criminal proceedings involving sexual assaults) and prior case law (which makes clear that expert testimony may never touch upon the issue of a witness’s credibility as that remains the province of the jury to make such determinations). And, since Section 5920 specifically prohibits experts from offering opinions regarding the credibility of any witness, including the victim, the Court was able to reconcile it with prior case law addressing the issue of permissible expert testimony.
The judgment of the Superior Court was reversed, and the case remanded for a new trial.