IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court ordered new trials Friday for three inmates charged with sexually abusing children, saying their convictions were tainted by expert testimony backing the accusers' allegations.
Experts such as doctors and therapists cannot testify about the credibility of alleged victims, including whether they believe their behavior, statements or symptoms are consistent with sexual abuse trauma, the court ruled.
Such testimony is improper because it puts a "scientific certainty stamp of approval" on accusations and unfairly tips the scales against defendants, Justice David Wiggins wrote. Allowing experts to testify that a child's symptoms are consistent with sexual abuse trauma "allows the expert to indirectly vouch that the victim was telling the truth," a determination that should be made by the jury, he wrote.
Prosecutors routinely call experts in child sexual abuse cases to educate jurors about "some of the dynamics that are present," such as delayed reporting, recantation and symptoms, Marion County Attorney Ed Bull said. He said he disagreed with the new standard, saying it would be like "if you had a homicide victim but you couldn't call an expert to say the injury is consistent with a gunshot or a knife wound."
"There's no question that this changes the landscape and prosecutors are going to have to tread very carefully on this issue," he said.
Courts have split on the issue nationwide. Some have banned such testimony while others allow it in all or some circumstances, such as when an accuser's credibility is attacked by the defense.
The Iowa rulings affect Patrick Dudley, 64, who is charged with abusing a 10-year-old girl in 2010 in Knoxville; Matthew E. Brown, 41, charged with abusing a 7-year-old girl in 2011 in Cedar County; and Jose Jaquez, 34, charged in 2012 with abusing a 10-year-old girl in Louisa County. All three were convicted of second-degree sexual abuse and sentenced to 25-year prison terms.
A therapist should not have been allowed to testify that Dudley's accuser was showing "telltale" physical manifestations of abuse, such as dressing "very boyish," cutting her hair and reacting when seeing his car, the court ruled. An expert who interviewed the child also shouldn't have testified about her recommendations that the girl receive therapy and stay away from Dudley because that vouched for her credibility, Wiggins wrote.
Chief Justice Mark Cady dissented, saying the trial judge didn't abuse his discretion in allowing the testimony.
Bull said he would retry Dudley.
Jurors in Brown's trial should not have been shown a sentence in a report from a doctor who interviewed the alleged victim and concluded her "disclosure is significant and that an investigation is clearly warranted," the court ruled. Cedar County Attorney Jeffrey Renander said the family of Brown's accuser was heartbroken, adding he believed it was wrong for justices to overturn a verdict based "on one sentence of a four-day jury trial." Renander said he hasn't decided whether to retry Brown.
Jurors in the Jaquez case should not have heard an expert who interviewed the child testify that her "demeanor was completely consistent with a child who has been traumatized, particularly multiple times," the court ruled.
Jaquez's attorney, Benjamin Bergmann, said he would seek his client's release from custody.
"My client looks forward to having his day in court, having a fair trial and being exonerated," he said.