Expert Opinions in Sexual Assault Cases
In Commonwealth v. Maconeghy, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just held that a child sexual abuse evaluator may not testify to his opinion that a child was sexually assaulted where the opinion is based solely on the evaluator’s apparent acceptance of the child’s reporting and description of the abuse.
In Maconeghy, the defendant’s sixteen year old stepdaughter reported that she had been raped and otherwise sexually abused on multiple occasions by the defendant when she was eleven years old. Based on her statement, the defendant was arrested and charged with various sex offenses, including rape by forcible compulsion and rape of a child. At trial, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of both the complainant and a pediatrician who evaluated the complainant to determine whether she suffered from sexual abuse.
The Testimony at Trial
After the complainant testified to the abuse, the Commonwealth called the pediatrician to testify to the results of his interview and examination of the complainant. He testified that he had conducted a physical exam of the complainant, and that the physical exam did not reveal any evidence of abuse. In his opinion, however, a physical examination was unlikely to detect evidence of the abuse outside of the first seventy-two hours following an occurrence of a sexual assault.
On cross-examination, the defense attorney repeatedly asked the doctor to concede that there was no physical or medical evidence of abuse. The doctor refused to concede this point, replying that based on the history provided by the complainant, it was clear that she had been sexually abused. Further, on questioning from the prosecution, the doctor testified that he strongly believed that the child had been victimized.
Based on this testimony, the defendant was convicted. Shortly thereafter, the defendant appealed. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the sexual assault convictions, finding that although the defense had opened the door to some of the doctor’s personal opinion by questioning him on cross-examination, the prosecution had pushed it too far on re-direct examination.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now upheld the Superior Court’s decision to reverse the conviction. The Court held that an expert witness may not express an opinion that a particular complainant was the victim of a sexual assault based upon witness accounts couched as history, at least in the absence of evidence of physical abuse. The Court recognized that such opinion testimony from an expert witness usurps the function of the jury. In other words, it is the jury’s job to determine whether or not the crime was committed. The doctor cannot testify that the crime was committed without intruding on that key function of the jury.
Instead, the doctor may testify only to the medical findings of the examination – that is, whether there was evidence of physical abuse and whether evidence of physical abuse would always be present following an allegation of sexual assault. The Court held that it is extremely important to limit the purported medical testimony because of the potential power and persuasiveness of testimony “by those clothed with the mantle of professional expertise,” meaning it will be very difficult for a jury to disregard the testimony of a respected medical doctor.
Accordingly, the Court upheld the decision of the Superior Court, and the defendant will receive a new trial. The Court declined to rule on whether a doctor would be permitted to testify to this type of opinion in a case with actual physical evidence of abuse. Thus, that remains an open question.
The Impact of the Court's Decision in Child Rape and Sexual Assault Cases
The Court’s decision in Maconeghy is extremely important because it is very common for the prosecution to call these types of expert witnesses in rape and sexual assault cases. This is particularly true in cases involving allegations of child abuse and sexual assault on children. In many cases, complainants wait years after the alleged incident to make any reports to the authorities, and therefore, the case will often come down to the word of the complainant versus the word of the defendant.
By calling respected medical doctors to testify to their opinion that the complainant is telling the truth, the Commonwealth is often able to improperly shroud the testimony of the complainant in a shield of authority and credibility because of the impressive credentials and respectability of the medical doctor. The real question in these cases is whether the jury should believe the complainant’s testimony, but permitting doctors to testify that they believe the complainant makes it much harder for the jury to keep an open mind and reject false testimony. Therefore, this opinion will make it possible for many defendants to have a fair trial by limiting the improper influence of a medical doctor who has no specialized training in determining whether or not a complainant is lying.
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