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State v. Batangan

    Brief Fact Summary. Felomino Batangan (Defendant) was indicted for second degree rape and first degree sexual abuse, after his daughter (Victim) accused him of having sexual contact with her. Defendant was tried twice; at the first trial, he was acquitted of the rape charge and a mistrial was declared on the sexual abuse charge, but at the second trial Defendant was convicted of sexual abuse. Defendant appeals his conviction here, arguing that the admission of certain expert testimony was improper.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Expert testimony in child sexual abuse cases is inadmissible when it usurps or unduly influences the jury (or any trier of fact) by telling the jury what legal conclusion to reach; such testimony is only admissible when it is relevant, the witness is an expert, the testimony assists the jury in comprehending something not commonly known or understood.

    Facts. Defendant’s daughter (Victim) reported to school authorities that Defendant had physically abused her; no evidence of physical injury was found on Victim. Victim then admitted that she had lied about the physical abuse, but the claimed that Defendant had performed sexual acts on her four of five times. At Defendant’s first trial, he was acquitted of a rape charge and a hung jury resulted in a mistrial as to a charge of sexual abuse.
    At Defendant’s second trial for sexual abuse, Dr. John Bond (Dr. Bond), who was a clinical psychologist with a subspecialty in sexually abused children’s treatment, was called by the prosecution to testify, and allowed to do so.
    Dr. Bond testified that, following his evaluation of Victim, it was his opinion that Victim was believable and that she had been abused by Defendant. Dr. Bond also testified as to Victim’s personality and intelligence, and offered some general testimony concerning the behaviors of sex abuse victims. Defendant was convicted, and appeals, citing the admission of Dr. Bond’s testimony.

    Issue. Did the lower court error in admitting, as expert opinion testimony, the testimony of Dr. Bond?

    Held. Yes; the testimony was inadmissible under Hawaii Rule of Evidence 702 and clearly prejudicial to Defendant, and therefore should have been excluded.

    Discussion. The court examined past caselaw in Hawaii and points out that it had, in the past, “recogniz[ed] [that] an expert generally may not testify as to the credibility of a witness . . . [but nevertheless found] child sexual abuse to be outside the common experience of the jury . . . [and] held that ‘an expert’s assessment of credibility may arguably provide the jury with potentially useful information.’” The court then cited the dangers and benefits of admitting expert testimony in sexual abuse cases:
    We are cognizant that cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse are difficult to prove, but they are equally difficult to defend against. Courts must proceed with caution in admitting expert testimony in these cases. The trial court must be satisfied that the witness is indeed an expert and that the testimony is relevant. The testimony must further be shown to assist the jury to comprehend something not commonly known or understood. And experts may not give opinions which in effect usurp the basic function of the jury. The trial court must keep in mind that an expert’s opinion on the credibility of a victim is always suspect of bias and carries the danger of unduly influencing the triers of fact. Furthermore, even objective opinions of experts regarding a victim’s credibility is no more reliable than the determination of the victim’s credibility by the triers of fact.
    The court concluded:
    Although Dr. Bond’s qualification as an expert was not objected to, his testimony regarding general principles of social or behavioral science of a child victim in a sexual abuse case was so minuscule, we are convinced that his testimony could not have assisted the jury in understanding an otherwise bizarre behavior . . . When queried about retractions of accusations — a common behavior recognized as unique to intrafamily sex abuse — Dr. Bond admitted that he lacked data on the subject. Finally, when Dr. Bond was asked to evaluate [Victim’s] credibility in her accusation of sexual abuse by Defendant, he did not explicitly say that [Victim] was “truthful” or “believable,” but there is no doubt in our minds that the jury was left with a clear indication of his conclusion that [Victim] was truthful and believable.
    Believing that Dr. Bond’s testimony had, in effect, told the jury the legal conclusion to reach, the court held that the testimony should have been excluded.


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