Conviction Overturned After Expert Vouches for Child’s Credibility

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts has overturned a conviction for sexual assault of a child because a social worker implicitly vouched for the child’s credibility.

Abuse allegedly occurred when the girl was seven years old. She first reported it when she was sixteen. During high school, the girl had behavioral problems, and the school referred her to a licensed clinical social worker. The social worker treated the girl once a week for almost a year before the girl alleged the abuse.

At trial, the defense called the social worker and examined her on her treatment of the girl, including what the girl said about the alleged abuse.

On cross-examination, the prosecution had the social worker testify as an expert witness. She testified that the girl “shut down,” cried often, had difficulty eating and sleeping, and was very depressed. The social worker went on to testify about the “symptoms that [she had seen] in… teenagers who have been sexually abused as children,” such as difficulty sleeping and eating, and “feel[ing] terrible all the time.” The social worker testified that these problems often start after the childhood abuse occurs and grow worse when a child reaches puberty.

The trial judge convicted, and the defendant appealed on the grounds that the social worker had improperly vouched for the credibility of the girl.

In Massachusetts and many states, an expert witness cannot testify that a child complainant was in fact sexually abused—nor can the expert imply it by testifying that the child’s behavior is typical for sexually abused children.

The supreme court found that the trial judge had erred in allowing the social worker to testify that the girl’s behavior was consistent with the behavior of victims of childhood sexual abuse. The court observed that “the line between permissible and impermissible opinion testimony in child sexual abuse cases is not easily drawn.” Here, though, the court found that this line had unquestionably been crossed when the social worker said that the girl had trouble eating and sleeping, that she was depressed, and that her “symptoms” worsened as she reached puberty—all matching the “symptoms” of sexually abused children generally, according to the social worker explained.

The court warned that “the risk of improper comparisons between any general behavioral characteristics of sexually abused children and a particular complaining child witness is most acute when the expert witness has examined or treated the child.” Finding this error prejudicial, the court reversed the conviction.