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State v. Royce, The Iowa Court of Appeals

Slip Copy No. 12-0574

Nature of the case:

Second-degree sexual abuse of a child.

Facts and Issues on Appeal:

The defendant was convicted of repeatedly raping his daughter from the time she was six or seven years old until she was twelve or thirteen. The victim did not report the crime until she was twenty-four because she was frightened of her father and because he warned her never to tell. She also did not want to hurt her family. The court allowed a licensed forensic interviewer and mental health counselor to testify about the prevalence of delayed disclosure of child sexual abuse as a way of helping the jury understand the delayed disclosure in this case. The defendant was convicted and on appeal, he argued that judge abused his discretion in allowing the expert testimony. The court disagreed, reasoning as follows:

Ruling & Rationale:

Although an expert may not testify in a such a way that they "verify the credibility" of a victim, an expert may express an opinion regarding “the pertinent mental and physical symptoms of victims of abuse.” The court noted that the expert had not interviewed the victim, and testified only in general terms about the behavior of abused children. The expert explained that most children do not report sexual abuse immediately, citing a number of factors including fear of not being believed, the effect on family, the relationship with the perpetrator, and threats or power and control issues. The expert did not testify about whether the victim fit the profile. For all these reasons, the testimony was properly admitted because the expert did not specifically vouch for or verify the credibility of the victim.

Editorial Comment

Expert testimony about delayed disclosures is important because it provides jurors with credible explanations for why victims of sexual violence – especially children – do not report the abuse sooner. Without an expert to explain seemingly unusual behavior, jurors may unfairly discredit a victim's testimony. However, while an expert opinion is important, it is important that a victim's reaction to serious trauma not be labeled a "syndrome," such as battered women’s syndrome, rape trauma syndrome and child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. “Syndromes” are not always accepted as valid science and the defense will likely point this out or bring this to light, thus weakening the value of the testimony. The expert can and should simply testify about the typical characteristics of a traumatized person. Avoiding "syndrome" labels also helps prevent needless stigmatization and pathologizing of victims.

Submitted By: Kelly Renaud -- Law Student

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