Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Child Rape Conviction Because of Improper Expert Testimony

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the convictions yesterday of an alleged child rapist because the victim’s counselor was permitted to testify that the victim exhibited the behavioral characteristics of a typical child rape survivor. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Kevin Quinn.

The defendant lived with his girlfriend and her daughter (the victim) for about 10 years. The victim was around seven years old when the defendant moved in with her. Shortly after the victim’s seventh birthday, the defendant allegedly sexually assaulted her on three occasions by inserting his fingers into her vagina, touching her chest, and forcing her to touch his penis. When the victim disclosed the alleged abuse years later, the defendant was charged with rape of a child and indecent assault and battery on a child.

At age 13, the victim began cutting her wrists. Upon entering high school, the victim began having problems at school and was absent for long periods of time. She started seeing a counselor, and she specifically denied she had been physically or sexually abused. At age 16, the victim finally disclosed the abuse to her boyfriend. The boyfriend relayed the information to the victim’s mother, who made an appointment for the victim to visit her counselor the following day. During that appointment, the victim told her counselor about the abuse for the first time.

The defendant called the counselor to testify that during the first 20-25 sessions with the victim, she (the victim) denied being sexually assaulted. The counselor did not offer testimony regarding the behavioral characteristics of child sexual abuse victims when she was questioned by the defense attorney. On cross-examination, however, the prosecutor “transformed [the counselor] into an expert witness.” The prosecutor established that the counselor had extensive experience in treating the victims of physical and sexual abuse and then asked her to describe the symptoms she had seen in teenagers who had been sexually abused as children. The counselor testified to a variety of symptoms, including “cutting.” These symptoms were largely consistent with the counselor’s description of the victim’s demeanor during their early counseling sessions.

The Supreme Judicial Court repeated the longstanding rule that no witness, including an expert, may offer an opinion about the credibility of another witness. The Court ruled that the counselor’s testimony in this case implicitly vouched for the victim’s story. Because it is the sole responsibility of the jury to determine whether the victim was telling the truth, the counselor’s testimony invaded the province of the jury and constituted reversible error. The Court said that even if the counselor had not directly compared the victim’s behavior to the typical behavior of sexually abused children, a reasonable jury would have been able to connect the dots and would have realized that the counselor was supporting the victim’s allegations.

This case illustrates the treacherous tightrope that is often walked by expert witnesses. While they are permitted to educate the jury about scientific or technical fields, they are not allowed to offer opinions about defendants’ guilt or innocence. In drug cases, for example, experienced narcotics detectives are generally permitted to offer an opinion that a certain amount of drugs is “more consistent” with an intent to distribute than with personal use. Of course, jurors are fully capable of understanding that this testimony is being offered by the Commonwealth to vouch for its theory of the case, but the SJC has repeatedly held that such testimony is permissible. The danger is that if the expert steps over the line, as the expert did in this case, appellate courts are quick to reverse convictions and reward defendants with new trials.