criminal appeals

Doctor May Not Provide Opinion That Child Was Sexually Assaulted Without Physical Evidence of Abuse

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.

The Appeal

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.

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers


If you are facing criminal charges or allegations of sexual assault, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully represented thousands of clients. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client who is facing criminal charges or who may be under investigation for a crime. We are experienced and understanding professionals who are well versed in recent case law and who will fight to use the law to your benefit. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our defense attorneys today.

Read the Opinion:

PA Superior Court Upholds Homicide by Vehicle Conviction for Failure to Come to a Complete Stop at Busy Intersection

Commonwealth v. Moyer

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Moyer, upholding the defendant’s conviction and state prison sentence for Homicide By Vehicle, Recklessly Endangering Another Person (“REAP”), and Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”). On appeal, Moyer challenged the sufficiency of the evidence against her as well as the admissibility of the blood results for the DUI charge under Birchfield v. North Dakota. Unfortunately for Moyer, the Superior Court held both that the Commonwealth produced sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of homicide by vehicle and that the Birchfield claim that police should have obtained a warrant prior to the blood draw was waived for failure to raise the issue prior to or during trial.

"Rolling Stops" and Homicide by Vehicle 

In Moyer, the record showed that the defendant approached a stop sign at an intersection which she had driven through on many prior occasions. The defendant failed to come to a complete stop at the intersection. She characterized the stop as a “rolling stop,” but the trial court found that she had traveled through the intersection at around twelve miles per hour and had not attempted to activate her brakes prior to the ensuing collision. As she went through the intersection, a box truck crashed into her car, crossed the double yellow line, and then crashed into a tow truck, killing the driver of the box truck. The evidence produced at trial also suggested that it would be difficult to see traffic coming from the side due to the presence of a building at the edge of the intersection.

Criminal Charges for Car Accidents

Moyer was arrested and charged with Homicide by Vehicle, REAP, Homicide by Vehicle while DUI, DUI, and various summary offenses relating to reckless driving. The jury convicted her of homicide by vehicle and REAP, but it acquitted her of Homicide by Vehicle while DUI because the levels of marijuana and Xanax in her system were extremely low and unlikely to cause actual impairment or inability to drive. The trial court found her guilty of DUI and the summary traffic offenses. Notably, there is no right to a jury trial for a first-offense DUI charge or for summary traffic offenses. Therefore, the jury decided whether to convict on the more serious judges, and the trial judge made the ruling on the DUI and summaries.

The Criminal Appeal

Moyer raised two issues on appeal. First, she challenged the use of the blood results against her because police had warned her that she would face more severe criminal penalties if she refused to consent to chemical testing in violation of Birchfield v. North Dakota. In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held that states many not criminalize the refusal to submit to warrantless blood testing even where police have probable cause to believe that the driver was driving under the influence. However, Birchfield, was decided after the defendant was convicted in the trial court. Although she sought a new trial by filing post-sentence motions prior to taking the appeal, the trial court denied the post-sentence motions.

The Superior Court upheld the trial court’s decision, agreeing that Birchfield is not retroactive and that the defendant should have known the case was on appeal in the United States Supreme Court and raised the issue prior to trial in order to preserve it for appeal. Pennsylvania’s appellate waiver doctrine is extremely demanding. If claims are not properly preserved by filing motions or objections at the trial level, those claims may be waived forever.

Second, Moyer argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict on Homicide by Vehicle because she had done nothing more than roll through the intersection. Homicide by Vehicle is defined in the Motor Vehicle Code. Section 3732 of the Motor Vehicle Code defines Homicide by Vehicle as:

Any person who recklessly or with gross negligence causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any law of this Commonwealth or municipal ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic exception section 3802 (relating to driving under influence of alcohol or controlled substance) is guilty of homicide by vehicle, a felony of the third degree, when the violation is the cause of death.

Thus, in order to convict a defendant of Homicide by Vehicle, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant’s traffic violation caused a death and that the defendant acted either recklessly or with gross negligence. Pennsylvania law defines criminal recklessness as follows:

A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.

The statute may also be satisfied by a showing of gross negligence. Gross negligence is more than ordinary civil negligence. Instead, it requires that the defendant’s conduct “evidenced a conscious disregard of the substantial and unjustified risk that he would be involved in a traffic accident causing death.” Accordingly, appellate courts have equated gross negligence with recklessness.

The Superior Court rejected Moyer’s argument that she had not acted recklessly. Although the small amounts of marijuana and Xanax in her system had likely not caused the accident, the Court found that her failure to stop at the intersection as required by Pennsylvania’s traffic laws was reckless enough to support a conviction for Homicide by Vehicle. First, the Court found that traveling at twelve miles per hour is different than simply failing to come to a complete stop and “rolling” through an intersection. Second, the Court noted that the stop sign preceded a busy intersection and that a building obscured the view of one lane of the cross traffic. Third, the Court considered the fact that the evidence showed Moyer had failed to brake prior to the collision. Finally, the Court recognized that Moyer was familiar with the intersection and had driven through it numerous times. Therefore, she should have known the risks of driving through it without stopping. Although the decedent failed to wear a seatbelt and was driving with his passenger door open, the Court still found that it was Moyer’s reckless conduct that caused his death. Therefore, the Court upheld the convictions against Moyer.

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Defense Attorneys Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Homicide by Vehicle charges are extremely serious, and there are often defenses to these charges. In general, it is not enough for the Commonwealth merely to show that there was a car accident and someone died. Instead, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant acted with more than just negligence; that is that the defendant acted recklessly, which is more difficult to show. Here, the evidence showed that the defendant was traveling twelve miles per hour into a busy intersection without stopping, which apparently satisfied the standard. In many cases, it may be possible to challenge Homicide by Vehicle charges both by attacking the prosecution’s proof as it relates to the defendant’s mens rea and by challenging whether the defendant’s actions actually caused the death of the victim. If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended thousands of cases. Call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session.

Read the Case: Commonwealth v. Moyer