Appellate Court Criticizes “Traumagenic Dynamics” Testimony

State v. Whitaker (2014)

The Washington Court of Appeals has criticized a trial judge’s admission of expert testimony based on “traumagenic dynamics”—four symptoms said to be exhibited by sexually assaulted children. The appellate court found the admission of this evidence “troubling.” It affirmed Whitaker’s conviction, though, because it believed the erroneous admission of this evidence did not affect the outcome.

The defendant, a Sunday school teacher, was accused of molesting an eight-year-old girl. During trial, the child’s counselor testified as an expert witness. When the prosecution called the counselor to testify, the defense objected, arguing that she would testify to sexual abuse syndrome. The trial judge allowed the counselor to testify, but on the condition that the counselor not testify on the “generalized profile” of sexual assault victims.

The counselor then testified that the child experienced “traumagenic dynamics” and that she had witnessed all four symptoms—stigma, powerlessness, traumatic sexualization, and betrayal—in the child.

The defense argued on appeal that the counselor’s testimony was based on principles not generally accepted in the scientific community, and thus, inadmissible. In the sexual abuse context, Washington precedent has held that experts cannot use a “generalized profile” of sexual assault victims to prove assault occurred, as these profiles are not generally accepted in the scientific community.

The appellate court found the counselor’s testimony did consist of a “generalized profile,” contrary to precedent. Nonetheless, the appellate court held that the defendant failed to show that admission of this evidence prejudiced him.

The appellate court remanded to the trial judge on a sentencing issue.