Had the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case taken place in any state besides Pennsylvania, the court proceedings could have transpired differently.
Though two experts testified about mental illness in the Sandusky case, no expert witnesses were able to testify about the issue of sexual abuse in itself.
Pennsylvania is the only state in which lawmakers do not allow expert testimony to be heard regarding sexual abuse in court. Expert testimony is regularly used in trials not related to sexual abuse to educate jury members about specialized information that they may need to reach a verdict.
Now, a bill passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate is headed to the desk of the governor. It would allow the use of such testimony.
“House Bill 1264 would permit an expert to provide testimony on the counterintuitive behavior indicative of a rape victim, as well as any recognized form of post-traumatic stress disorder in sexual assault cases as well as other common psychological reactions to trauma,” according to a press release issued by Rep. Cherelle L. Parker, D-Philadelphia, on the Pennsylvania House of Representatives website.
Robert Donaldson, a managing partner at Masorti & Donaldson based in State College, explained that expert testimony is important for showing a jury why people affected by sexual abuse are frequently slow to report the crime. Expert testimony can also be used to educate the jury about a “grooming” process often displayed by predators, he said.
During the Sandusky trial, it could also have been used to explain why the person referred to as “Victim 4” was still friendly with Sandusky after the abuse occurred, Donaldson said.
“It will be a huge positive for the prosecution,” he said, referring to the bill.
Donaldson explained that because the bill was voted on after the charges against Sandusky were filed, expert testimony will still not be allowed if Sandusky chooses to appeal Friday’s verdict.
Donaldson added that if any new charges are filed against Sandusky, the use of expert testimony would be admissible in the trial, should the bill be signed.
“Research shows that victims of sex crimes behave in a number of ways, but because of the myths regarding sex crimes, jurors perceive some of those behaviors, such as a failure to immediately report the crime, as compelling evidence of a victim’s lack of credibility,” Parker said in the press release. “To overcome these myths, expert testimony has been deemed necessary in order to provide a jury with the proper context to evaluate a victim’s behavior.”
The bill has not been met with universal approval. Matt McClenahen, a criminal defense attorney based in State College, expressed concern that expert testimony will unfairly aid the prosecution in a trial.
“You increase the likelihood that someone who has made false allegations is going to be believed,” McClenahen said. “It’s absolutely inappropriate to have an expert bolster the credibility of a witness by explaining away inconsistencies in the story.”
McClenahen pointed out that the jury was able to convict Sandusky on almost all of the charges without the use of any expert testimony regarding sexual abuse.
Kristen Houser, vice president of communications and development for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said she strongly supports the bill.
“We believe that sexual assault trials have been blatantly unfair without being able to have expert witness testimony,” Houser said.
She explained that those affected by sexual abuse face embarrassment, shock and trauma that can cause them to act differently than anyone affected by other crimes.
“We need someone to say that in this kind of crime most victims don’t report right away,” Houser said. “They don’t go for medical help. When they do tell, it is very common for them not to tell the whole story right away.”