I rarely discuss out of state appellate decisions, unless the issues involved could be influential in the State of Washington. An appellate case out of California, People v. Cody Julian, is a recent example. It involves an area of psychology called Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.
What is Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome?
Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) is a theory of how children respond to ongoing sexual abuse. It outlines common behaviors and is believed to be a diagnostic tool. Experts in the field can be called to give testimony in abuse cases, either for or against the alleged perpetrator.
CSAAS expert testimony is admissible to “rehabilitate” a child witness. This occurs when the defense argues the alleged child victim’s conduct is inconsistent with a claim of sexual abuse. A classic defense attempt at witness discreditation is when the child delays reporting abuse. California, as does Washington State, allows expert testimony on common reactions child molestation victims experience, such as abrupt changes in behavior. However, such evidence is “not admissible to prove the complaining witness has in fact been sexually abused” (a difficult distinction).
The prosecutor in Mr. Julian’s case, after presenting CSAAS evidence, introduced statistical percentages of false allegations by child sexual abuse victims. The expert testified false allegations by children “don’t happen very often… about as low as one percent of cases to a high of maybe 6, 7, 8 percent of cases…” False allegations were “very infrequent or rare.”
This went over the line! So much so, the court found Mr. Julian’s defense lawyer “ineffective” when he failed to object to the testimony. The Court held such statistical probabilities were “statistical probabilities of guilt”, where “the jury may be distracted from its required function of weighing the evidence on the issue of guilt and may rely instead on this irrelevant evidence.” The statistical probability invited jurors to presume Julian was guilty.
Instead of rehabilitating a child’s inconsistency over details that were in conflict, the prosecutor chose to get into statistical percentage of false allegations. He probably felt compelled to because the child testified inconsistently. She testified one of her statements was “mostly true and a little bit of a lie.”
The statistical probability testimony went beyond the “permissible scope” of CSAAS evidence, was “highly prejudicial,” and “deprived Mr. Julian of a fair trial.” His convictions for lewd acts upon a child and sexual penetration of a child under ten years of age were reversed and his case was remanded for a new trial.
Washington state often looks to California as “persuasive authority.” Here, the state prosecutor went too far in attempts to use an expert to bolster child testimony.
If you have a criminal matter and would like to consult with a lawyer, contact Jan Olson at Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC. You can reach Jan by calling (206) 682-0565 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.