EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Areas Of My Expertise: Supreme Court Of Vermont Finds Police Officer & Counselor Qualified To Testify About Rape Trauma Syndrome

Although there is not a set definition of [Rape Trauma Syndrome], it generally holds that victims often are confused and disoriented in the immediate wake of a rape or sexual assault, resulting in delayed reporting when the victim finally reconstructs the nature of the event. Colin Miller, A Shock to the System, 12 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 49, 71 (2005)

Courts generally agree that testimony concerning Rape Trauma Syndrome ("RTS") by a qualified expert is admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which provides that

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:  

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;  

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;  

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and  

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

The question addressed by the Supreme Court of Vermont in its recent opinion in State v. Hammond, 2012 WL 2620529 (Vt. 2012), is who qualifies as an RTS expert under Vermont's counterpart to Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

In Hammond, Jeffory was convicted of sexual assault and lewd and lascivious conduct. At trial, the

Complainant's guidance counselor testified that "it's typical of abuse victims that they—you know, they're ashamed and they're embarrassed, and they don't want to—they don't want to tell the whole story the first time, or even the second time. Sometimes they wait twenty years." The counselor's work experience included five years at a group home for abused or neglected children, time as a youth advocate in the detective division of a police department, and nearly fifteen years of school counseling at the high school level. Next, an officer testified that it was no surprise that complainant failed to give a full and true account of the massage during her first interview considering that she spoke with a male police officer and the nature of the conversation. According to the officer, his background included training in the dynamics of victims of sex crimes during his time with CUSI and conducting several interviews with complaining witnesses in sexual assault or abuse cases. Finally, the detective testified that, based on her experience conducting interviews with complainants in thirty to fifty sexual offense cases, victims "sometimes...report[ed] it right away and sometimes it was several years before it would be reported." There was no objection to the witnesses' qualifications or to their testimony.

After he was convicted, Hammond appealed, claiming, inter alia, that these witnesses were not qualified to render expert testimony concerning RTS. The Supreme Court of Vermont disagreed, concluding that

Given [Rule 702]'s qualifications for an "expert," it is not plain that the counselor and police witnesses were non-experts or otherwise unqualified to testify as they did. No objection was interposed below. The trial court was not required to interrupt direct examination, on its own, to conduct voir dire on the credentials of the...witnesses. The primary "responsibility to exclude objectionable testimony" lay with defendant.... Given that the counselor [and] officer...were experienced, although in varying degrees, in the area of sex crimes, victim response, and reporting behaviors, it is not clear that they were not competent to testify about the same, or that the subject of their testimony was beyond their expertise. The witnesses were asked only about their respective experience...with delayed or incomplete disclosure by victims of sexual assault—with the officer also offering his reaction to this particular case based on his experience. It is nowhere evident from the record that these witnesses were asked for unfounded scientific opinions, as opposed to relevant comparative "specialized," if not "technical," knowledge acquired from their professional "knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" admissible under Rule 702.



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