The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday reversed the conviction of a man who was found guilty of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14 where the prosecution improperly admitted medical records without the necessary expert testimony. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hamel.
In September of 2011, the 12-year-old victim moved into a house with his family. The defendant was a frequent guest in the house. The two spent considerable time together playing video games, watching television, and going to the beach. The victim testified he liked the defendant. However, as the defendant and the victim watched TV together one day, the defendant grabbed the victim’s penis and masturbated him. At trial, the victim testified the defendant had touched his penis in a similar manner between ten and twenty times. The defendant also allegedly kissed the victim on the lips between five and ten times. At some point, the victim’s stepmother became aware of the inappropriate relationship and brought the victim to a child advocacy center. During the course of multiple visits, the victim first disclosed the kissing and later disclosed the inappropriate touching. Within a month of the alleged assaults, the victim began experiencing pain in his penis. He was examined by a doctor, who determined the victim had a condition called dermatitis. The doctor prescribed a cream which took care of the problem. At trial, the prosecutor sought to admit the victim’s medical records establishing his treatment for “irritation in the penis area” resulting in a diagnosis of dermatitis. The defendant objected but the judge allowed admission of the records. Following his conviction for two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child, the defendant appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.
The question on appeal centered on whether the Commonwealth was required to introduce expert testimony to establish a causal link between the defendant’s alleged crime and the victim’s dermatitis. Expert testimony is required only when evidence offered by a party is not within general human knowledge and experience. The Court concluded the general knowledge and experience of lay jurors would not permit them to establish a connection between the alleged crime and the medical diagnosis of the victim. The Court conceded that while the alleged conduct of the defendant in rubbing the victim’s penis could have produced skin surface irritation, it is far from certain that such an act would cause a medical condition called dermatitis that required a doctor’s treatment. Therefore, it was improper for the trial judge to allow the admission of the medical records without an expert witness to testify as to their significance. The Court further ruled that the defendant had been prejudiced by the trial judge’s error, as the Commonwealth’s case relied primarily on the testimony of the victim. The prosecutor’s argument that the medical diagnosis corroborated the victim’s testimony was powerful and likely influenced the jury. Accordingly, the convictions were tainted by the improper admission of the medical records and the defendant is entitled to a new trial.