Lay Testimony about Delayed Disclosure of Childhood Abuse Held Inadmissible

The Court of Appeals of New Mexico has held that testimony about the behavior of sexually abused children cannot be admitted as lay testimony, reversing a conviction where a lay witness testified about how often abused children give a delay disclosure.

Inadmissible testimony

In Duran, the accusing child testified that the defendant abused her sometime between second and fourth grade. She stated that she did not immediately tell anyone about the alleged abuse because she was scared. She reported the allegations to her mother a few years later, who confronted the defendant, but then did nothing further. When the accuser brought her allegations again at a later date, the mother reported it to law enforcement. A professional at a child advocacy center interviewed the child shortly thereafter.

At trial, the professional testified as a lay witness that the majority of children who she personally interviewed had a delayed disclosure of alleged abuse. The trial judge reasoned that this testimony was based on the professional’s personal observations, not any specialized knowledge.

The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial judge erred in allowing the professional to testify about the frequency in which abused children delay disclosure because the professional was a lay witness, not an expert.

In general, a lay witness is limited to testimony based on their perception, helpful to understanding her testimony or a fact issue, and not based on specialized knowledge. Testimony based on specialized knowledge must be given by an expert witness.

The State argued that the professional’s testimony was admissible because it was based on her own experience working with abused children. However, the court found that frequency of delayed reporting is within the specialized knowledge of people in this field. Also, the court found significant that the professional said that her statement about delayed disclosure was also based on “specific statistics complied in the [child advocacy center’s] specialized work environment.”

As the court concluded that the professional’s testimony was based on specialized knowledge, it held the delayed disclosure statement was wrongfully admitted. It found the error was prejudicial because “it was designed to lead the jury to infer that [the accuser’s] delayed in disclosing the incident was justified—an inference that would support [her] credibility.” The court thus found the error prejudicial, as it went to the accuser’s credibility, and it reversed the conviction.