PA Superior Court: Commonwealth May Introduce Expert Testimony on Dynamics of Sexual Violence and Victim Responses to Sexual Violence

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cramer, affirming the defendant’s convictions for sexual assault and indecent assault. The Superior Court not only held that there was sufficient evidence to convict Appellant, but that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the Commonwealth to introduce expert testimony about the dynamics of sexual violence, victim responses to sexual violence, and the impact of sexual violence on victims during and after being assaulted. The Superior Court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of his motion to introduce DNA evidence that showed the complainant had sperm from two other males on her underwear.

Commonwealth v. Cramer

The complainant testified at trial as follows: The complainant met the defendant at a bar in Centre County, Pennsylvania. After meeting at the bar, the complainant and the defendant went to the defendant’s apartment along with the complainant’s roommate. While the complainant was in the bathroom, the defendant entered the bathroom and took of his pants. He then began to penetrate the complainant from behind.

The complainant told the defendant that “he didn’t want to do that.” The defendant did not stop until the complainant “turned around and told him that she didn’t want to do this again and that [she] wasn’t on the pill.” The defendant then asked complainant to engage in oral sex, and the complainant agreed to do so. However, “[s]he stopped giving him oral sex and told him ‘you don’t want this. I don’t want this. This is going to end badly for both of us.’” The complainant’s roommate testified at trial that she heard the complainant say to Appellant “no stop, you don’t want to do this.”

The complainant left the bathroom and eventually left the apartment with her roommate. When they left the apartment, the complainant met a man in the hallway. He testified at trial that the complainant “appeared rattled” and that he inquired if she was okay. The three then went into the man’s apartment so that the complainant’s roommate could use the bathroom. While she was in the bathroom, the complainant told the man and his girlfriend what had happened in the defendant’s apartment. After the roommate was done using the restroom, the two left. They then caught the bus, and this is when the complainant told the roommate about what happened.

Police arrested the defendant, and prosecutors filed charges of Sexual Assault, Indecent Assault, Rape by forcible Compulsion, and Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse by Forcible Compulsion. At trial, the Commonwealth called an expert who testified about how “the manner in which a victim’s response to sexual violence may be counterintuitive.” The defendant attempted to introduce DNA evidence relating to the complainant’s prior sexual contact. Specifically, the defendant attempted to show that there were three contributors of sperm on her underwear. The trial court, however, precluded this testimony based on Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law despite the fact that the complainant told hospital staff that she had not slept with anyone two weeks prior to this incident. The defendant testified at trial that this was a consensual sexual encounter. Nonetheless, the jury found him guilty of Sexual Assault and Indecent Assault. The defendant appealed his conviction to the Superior Court.

What is the Rape Shield Law?

On appeal, the defendant argued that he should have been allowed to introduce the DNA evidence that showed the complainant had sperm on her underwear from two other males. Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law, 18 P.S.A. § 3104. governs the admissibility of evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct. Generally, it prohibits the introduction of the complainant’s prior sexual history. Its purpose is to prevent a trial from shifting its focus from the culpability of the accused toward the virtue and chastity of the victim. It is designed to prevent a defendant from simply attacking a complainant on the basis of his or her alleged promiscuity as whether or not any given complainant has had sex with other people standing on its own is not a defense to a rape charge. Courts have been mostly consistent in holding that the introduction of evidence relating to a complainant’s prior sexual history is not relevant when the issue in a case is whether consent existed.

At the same time, defendants have a right to cross-examine their accusers under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. Therefore, appellate courts have recognized that the Rape Shield Law must yield to a defendant’s right to cross-examine on relevant topics. Consequently, Pennsylvania courts have created a balancing test that considers whether the proposed evidence is relevant to attack credibility, whether the probative value outweighs the prejudicial impact and whether there are alternative means to challenge credibility. If a defendant seeks to introduce evidence, he or she must first file a written motion with the court and include an offer of proof as to what the evidence is and why the evidence should be admitted. This is known as piercing the Rape Shield. If the court is satisfied with these reasons, then the court will order an in-camera hearing and make findings on the record as to the relevance and the admissibility of the proposed evidence. It is worth noting that on appeal, an abuse of discretion standard applies and thus it can be very difficult to prevail on appeal on the basis that the trial court improperly prohibited the introduction of this type of evidence.

Expert Testimony in Rape Cases

A Pennsylvania law, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 5920, allows the Commonwealth to introduce expert testimony in sexual assault and many child abuse cases. An expert may testify about “the dynamics of sexual violence, victim responses to sexual violence, and the impact of sexual violence on victims during and after being assaulted.” Notably, the expert cannot testify as to the credibility of the witness. This is significant because courts have overturned convictions when the expert does so.

However, before the court will permit an expert to testify, the Commonwealth may have to show that the witness is in fact an expert. Further, where the Commonwealth seeks to introduce a “novel” form of science, then this science must comply with the Frye standard. The Frye standard requires that the methodology underlying the novel scientific evidence must have general acceptance in the relevant scientific community. The trial court is not required to conduct a Frye hearing any time a party seeks to introduce scientific evidence. Instead, it is only required when the trial court has articulable grounds to believe that an expert witness has not applied accepted scientific methodology in a conventional fashion in reaching his or her conclusions. The opposing party must demonstrate that the expert’s testimony is based on novel scientific evidence, i.e. that there is a legitimate dispute regarding the reliability of the expert’s conclusions.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the convictions. The Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the introduction of the DNA evidence. This is notable because the the defendant could not even use this to impeach the complainant’s credibility. As stated above, the complainant told hospital staff that she had not slept with anyone prior to this incident. Despite the DNA evidence contradicting this statement, the Superior Court still denied the appeal. The Superior Court reasoned that this was not relevant given the Appellant’s argument that this was a consensual sexual encounter. Thus, the only issue was whether the complainant had consented. The fact that she had likely slept with other men did not show whether she had consented or not.

The Superior Court also held that a Frye hearing was not necessary to determine the admissibility of the Commonwealth’s expert testimony. The Superior Court stated that the defense failed to make an initial showing that the Commonwealth’s expert testimony was based on novel scientific evidence. In his Motion in Limine, the defendant argued “the testimony of [Commonwealth Expert] is likely to contain opinions based on the human behavioral sciences of psychology, human development, and science.” Therefore, he did not directly assert that the Commonwealth’s expert’s testimony was based on novel science. Additionally, the Superior Court gave great weight to the expert’s firsthand experience with victims and her own research. Consequently, this appeal was denied, as well. The Court’s reasoning in this regard highlights the importance of making an adequate record when challenging the admissibility of evidence in the trial court. The defendant here offered no evidence that anything about the expert’s testimony was novel; therefore, the court did not have to hold a hearing.

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