Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Frenzel v. State

Citation. Frenzel v. State, 2007 WY 50, 154 P.3d 349, 2007 Wyo. LEXIS 52 (Wyo. Mar. 21, 2007)

Brief Fact Summary. Appellant’s daughter claimed that he committed acts of sexual assault on her. A State’s expert testified that her case was consistent with Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, and appellant challenged the testimony.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Court held that the CSAAS testimony is admissible for the sole purpose of explaining a victim’s specific behavior which might be incorrectly construed as inconsistent with an abuse victim or to rebut an attack on the victim’s credibility.

Facts. Appellant fathered children with 4 separate women, with he and his second wife producing D-2 (the prosecutrix). D-2 claimed that appellant committed 7 different acts of first degree sexual assault on his daughter. Appellant challenges the admission of expert testimony from the State’s expert concerning the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS). Appellant’s objections are based on a Wyoming rule of evidence that permits admission of expert testimony only if it will assist the trier of fact. Appellant argues the testimony violated the evidentiary rules because it is not generally recognized in the field of psychology and thus is not sufficiently reliable to assist the jury. The expert was qualified as an expert in child psychology and child sexual psychopathology.

Issue. Is the CSAAS testimony generally recognized in the field of psychology so as to be sufficiently reliable to assist the jury?

Held. CSAA evidence is admissible with certain limitations.
The expert testified that CSAAS refers to a pattern of behaviors called symptoms, with these symptoms consisting of secrecy, a sense of helplessness, a pattern of accommodation, delayed reporting, and retraction or recanting. He testified that D-2 exhibited traits consistent with these symptoms except for recantation. He stated that recantation is more common among younger children, and it is not surprising that she did not recant given her age. He concluded that in his opinion this case demonstrated a classic pattern of a long history of child sexual abuse.

Appellant argues that CSAAS is not a recognized diagnosis within the field of psychology. The Court uses three criteria to assess the admissibility of scientific expert witness testimony. 1) The subject matter of the testimony must be beyond the understanding of laypersons and be distinctly related to some science. 2) The expert must possess sufficient skill, experience, or knowledge within the science to raise the inference that his testimony will assist the trier of fact. 3) The scientific basis of the expert testimony must be in such a state of development so as to permit the expert to make a reasonable opinion.

The purpose of CSAAS is to define a common language for clinical psychologists dealing with child sexual abuse, and is not intended as a means of detecting the existence of abuse. Because it is not diagnostic, the majority of courts have limited its admissibility. Some jurisdictions require a limiting instruction, others will not admit the testimony if offered to prove abuse occurred, while others will admit it solely to rehabilitate the victim’s credibility. A few jurisdictions never admit it because it has not obtained scientific acceptance.

CSAAS testimony is restricted because it offers no help to the jury of proof that abuse occurred. It is considered unreliable, there is considerable controversy and dispute over the inclusive traits, and it includes behaviors that may manifest in a child who was not sexually abused.

This Court believes that admissibility without restrictions would run too high a risk of misleading the jury and therefore be more prejudicial than probative. This Court will admit CSAAS testimony for the sole purpose of explaining a victim’s specific behavior which might be incorrectly construed as inconsistent with an abuse victim or to rebut an attack on the victim’s credibility.

This Court also determines that the expert’s testimony was proper in this case. He never stated that D-2 was abused because she represents a classic case of CSAAS. The majority of the testimony merely explained her behavior. The explanation of why she did not exhibit the 5th trait was unnecessary, but the Court cannot say it adversely affected the appellant’s substantial rights. CSAAS was not the sole basis for his ultimate conclusion that her case represented a classic pattern of a long history of sexual abuse. He performed a battery of psychological and intelligence tests, and based his opinion on the totality of his examination.

Discussion. The case presents an overview of the admissibility of expert scientific testimony, with the Court ultimately determining that they would admit the testimony in limited circumstances consistent with other jurisdictions.