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Expert Testimony: Court Of Appeals Expands The Scope Of Child Sex Abuse Expert’s Testimony To Include Sexual Predator’s Behavior


appeals convictions child sex abuse and expert tesitmony

People v. Diaz

20 N.Y.3d 569

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: March 26, 2013

Prior False Claims Made By Complainant Held To Be Admissible

Summary: Defendant was charged with course of sexual conduct against a child. At trial, the People presented expert testimony of a psychologist with expertise in the field of child sexual abuse. Defense counsel objected, arguing that the testimony was supposed to be about alleged victims not about an alleged suspect The court overruled Defense counsel’s objection and held that it was a legitimate part of a general discussion of child sexual abuse. Defense sought to call Martinez, the complainant’s younger brother’s biological father to testify that the complainant had also made the same false allegations against him prior to the present allegations. The trial court denied the request.

Defendant appealed arguing that 1) the trial court erred in allowing the expert to testify about how an adult sexual abuser may act to gain the compliance of a child victim without using threats or force and that the testimony discussed similar behavior to that alleged by the Defendant; and 2) the trial court erred in precluding Martinez’s testimony. The Appellate Division reversed. The Court of Appeals granted the People leave to appeal and held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it permitted expert testimony regarding the behavior of sexual abusers. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Appellate Division and held that the proffered testimony of Martinez should have been permitted at trial because evidence of a complainant’s prior false allegations of sexual abuse is not inadmissible as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.

Issue:  Whether an expert in child sex abuse can testify as to the behavior of a sexual predator and whether the trial court erred when it did not allow testimony concerning complaining witness’s prior false allegations.

See Also: Insurance Fraud: Court Of Appeals Limits Scope Of Activity Covered By The Term “Fraudulent Insurance Act”

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that Expert testimony is properly admitted if it helps to clarify an issue calling for professional or technical knowledge, possessed by the expert and beyond the ken of the typical juror. That testimony is permissible as it is helpful for the jury to understand the victim’s unusual behavior.  The Court of Appeals also held that evidence of a complainant’s prior false allegations of sexual abuse is not inadmissible as a matter of law. Rather, it may be permitted if the prior allegations suggest a pattern casting substantial doubt on the validity of the charges.

Facts: Defendant was alleged to have sexually abused his granddaughter and was charged with course of sexual conduct against a child in the first and second degrees. At trial, the People presented expert testimony of a psychologist with expertise in the field of child sexual abuse. Defense counsel argued that the testimony was supposed to be about alleged victims and not about an alleged suspect. Defense also argued that the expert could discuss only matters outside the ken of the average juror and that such evidence would be outweighed by its prejudice. The court overruled defense counsel’s objection.

Defense sought to call Martinez to testify that the complainant had also made the same false allegations against him prior to the present allegations. The trial court denied Martinez’s testimony.  Defendant appealed arguing that 1) the trial court erred in allowing the expert to testify on behavior similar to that alleged by the complainant; and 2) the trial court erred in precluding Martinez’s testimony when the complainant had a history of making false allegations of sexual abuse by family members.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that Expert testimony is properly admitted if it helps to clarify an issue calling for professional or technical knowledge, possessed by the expert and beyond the ken of the typical juror. Delong v. Erie County, 60 NY2d 296, 307 1983.  In this case, the Defendant argued that much of the testimony had nothing to do with explaining why a victim’s behavior would be inconsistent with a layperson’s belief. Rather, he argued that the expert testified about the ways in which a perpetrator can engage a young victim in sexual activities.  He further argued that the testimony mirrors exactly the testimony that was heard by the complainant said in this case; the games that they played.

      The Court of Appeals held, although some of the testimony discussed behavior similar to that alleged by the complainant in this case, the expert spoke of such behavior in general terms. She testified that she was not aware of the facts of the particular case, did not speak with the complainant and was not rendering an opinion as to whether sexual abuse took place. The Court of Appeals held that it was not an abuse of discretion when the trial court permitted Expert testimony regarding the behavior of sexual abusers. That testimony is permissible as helpful for the jury to understand the victim’s unusual behavior. People v. Williams. 20 N.Y.3d 57.

On the issue of whether the testimony of Martinez should have been admissible, the Appellate Division reversed and found that the trial court erred in precluding the testimony of Martinez and that the error was not harmless. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order and held that the proffered testimony of Martinez should have been permitted at trial because the proposed testimony went to a material issue of Defendant’s defense, namely, whether the complainant had a history of making false allegations of sexual abuse by family members.

      The Court of Appeals held that evidence of a complainant’s prior false allegations of sexual abuse is not inadmissible as a matter of law People v. Hunter, 11 NY3d 1, 6 2008, it may be permitted if the prior allegations suggest a pattern casting substantial doubt on the validity of the charges, People v. Mandel, 48 NY2d 952, 954 1979. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.


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