NJ Supreme Court: Most Expert Testimony Concerning “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” Is Inadmissible

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has decided the case of State v. J.L.G., holding that the prosecution cannot introduce expert testimony regarding “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (CSAAS) in general and its component behaviors, with the exception of delayed disclosure, at trial. Specifically, the Court found that this evidence, other than delayed disclosure, does not have a sufficiently reliable basis in science to be the subject of expert testimony. This is a truly significant decision that will no doubt affect countless child sex cases.

State v. J.L.G.

In J.L.G., the defendant was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, third-degree aggravated sexual criminal sexual contact, second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, and third-degree witness tampering. The complainant in the case was the defendant’s stepdaughter. The complainant testified that the defendant abused her on a daily basis for approximately eighteen months. At one point, the defendant pointed a gun at her and threatened to hurt her, her mother, and her brother if she told anyone about the abuse. Further, the complainant did not tell anyone because she was embarrassed about the abuse.

On one occasion, a friend of the complainant’s mother visited her residence and found the defendant lying on top of the complainant with an erection. The complainant’s mother became aware of this incident and threatened to kill the defendant. However, the complainant, fearful that her mother would do something that would result in her getting arrested, denied any sexual activity was occurring. Eventually, the complainant did tell her mother about the abuse. The complainant then made a statement to the prosecutor’s office and, under the guidance of the detectives, the complainant called defendant. In these conversations, which were recorded, the defendant offered to give the complainant money if she would withdraw the allegations. The complainant also had an audio recording of the last time the defendant abused her which the Court described as “graphic.”  

Police arrested the defendant and charged him with the previously mentioned crimes. At trial, the State presented evidence through various witnesses and the recorded phone conversations and interaction with the defendant. Additionally, the State also presented expert testimony. Specifically, the State called a clinical psychologist who testified about CSAAS. The defendant had filed a pre-trial motion to exclude this testimony, but the motion was denied. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted the defendant on all charges. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.

What is CSAAS?

Dr. Roland Summit is credited for creating CSAAS. In 1983, he published an article which he described the syndrome as “a common denominator of the most frequently observed” behaviors of child sexual abuse victims. In essence, CSAAS testimony is used to explain how a sexually abused child behaves and why a child may not immediately report abuse. According to Dr. Summit, there are several frequently observed behaviors of child abuse victims. These “components” form CSAAS and are: secrecy, helplessness, entrapment and accommodation, delayed, conflicted, and unconvincing disclosure, and retraction. If a child were to exhibit these behaviors, according to Dr. Summit, CSAAS can be used to support the theory that the child was abused.

Notably, neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association has recognized CSAAS. Further, this syndrome does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the authoritative list of mental disorders. CSAAS has been undermined by a number of scientific studies. Despite this, in 1993, the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. J.Q., 130 N.J. 554 (1993) held that CSAAS had “sufficiently reliable scientific basis” to be presented to a jury. The Court opined that its introduction allowed juries to understand “traits found in children who have been abused” and thus allowed expert testimony of CSAAS to be introduced in criminal trials.

What is Expert Testimony?

To put it simply, expert testimony is testimony about a subject that is beyond the range of knowledge of the average person. Expert testimony is used in a variety of cases. To give an example, experts are frequently called to testify in drug cases. Typically, the Commonwealth would not need an expert if a defendant was charged with Possession with the Intent to Deliver and the facts demonstrated that a defendant exchanged drugs for money. However, an expert may be needed if a defendant was not seen engaging in a hand-to-hand transaction, but instead was arrested with a significant amount of narcotics on his person. The average person might not know that particular amount of drugs is enough to establish that the defendant possessed those drugs with the intent to sell them and thus the Commonwealth may need an expert to prove its case.

In New Jersey, Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence governs the admission of expert testimony. In order to introduce expert testimony they must establish: 1) the subject matter of the testimony must be “beyond the ken of the average juror”; 2) the field of inquiry “must be at a state of the art such that an expert’s testimony could be sufficiently reliable;” and 3) “the witness must have sufficient expertise to offer the” testimony. However, this is not the end of the analysis. The trial court then must make a determination as to whether the science underlying the proposed expert testimony has “gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” This is known as the Frye standard.

The Frye standard does not require a universal acceptance by the scientific community. Nonetheless, the proponent must show that there is general acceptance of the what the expert is going to testify to. The proponent can do this numerous ways: they can introduce judicial opinions, scientific or legal articles, and expert testimony to establish that the science is generally accepted. Notably, Pennsylvania also uses the Frye standard, whereas federal courts use a different test.  

New Jersey Supreme Court Dramatically Restricts Expert Testimony Concerning CSAAS in Criminal Cases

 In State v. J.L.G., the Supreme Court of New Jersey dramatically restricted the introduction of CSAAS testimony in criminal trials. First, the Court reiterated that expert testimony can only be introduced when the evidence is beyond the understanding of the average juror. In the instant case, the complainant gave what the court described as “straightforward reasons” as to why the she did not immediately report the defendant’s abuse. Specifically, she did not report because she was embarrassed, the defendant had threatened her if she reported, and she was worried that her mother would incur criminal charges if she were to disclose said abuse. Therefore, CSAAS testimony was not necessary to show why there was a delayed report. The Court went on to say that if the child cannot offer a rational explanation as to why there was a delayed report, then the prosecution can introduce expert testimony to help understand the witness’s behavior. However, this was not applicable in the instant case and thus the trial court erred in allowing CSAAS testimony in the first place.  

The Court did not end its analysis there. The Court also addressed whether CSAAS testimony satisfies the Frye standard. To make this determination, the Court conducted a lengthy analysis of CSAAS and studied its origins and subsequent critiques by other experts. The Court found that there is a lack of data supporting CSAAS. The Court further highlighted that it is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and that it has not been accepted by the American Psychiatric Association and other notable associations. Further, there is limited scientific and empirical support for the majority of the individual components of CSAAS. As such, the Court found that with the exception of delayed reporting (because there is consistent and long-standing support in scientific literature to support that most child victims of sexual abuse do not immediately report their abuse), there is not enough scientific support to allow experts to testify to the other components of CSAAS.

In the instant case, this was a hollow victory for the defendant. Despite the Court agreeing with the defendant that this evidence should not have been introduced at trial, the Court found that this was a harmless error because the evidence against the defendant was so overwhelming. As such, the defendant will not get a new trial and will serve the majority of his 23 year prison term.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

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