Special trial rules still are needed to protect sexual assault victims, especially children, from the potential bias of jurors who question the credibility of victims who delay reporting the allegations, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Justices rejected a sexual assault convict's request to scrap a legal doctrine with roots in an 1820 law that allows witnesses to testify that the victims told them about the sexual assaults before they were reported to police. The "constancy of accusation" doctrine is an exception to rules barring hearsay. The court ruled 6-0, with the seventh justice issuing a concurring opinion.
Most states have special rules allowing evidence barred in other cases that guard against jury bias in trials involving sexual assault victims, citing evidence some jurors question victims' credibility if they delay reporting crimes.
The convict in the Connecticut case is serving a 25-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter numerous times in the early 2000s, from the time she was 6 until she was 9. His daughter, now 20, didn't report the abuse until 2009. Two witnesses were allowed to testify at his trial under the doctrine that she told them about the assaults before police were notified. The father is named only as "Daniel W.E." in the ruling to protect his daughter's identity.
But the court did act on a secondary request by the man to at least modify the doctrine to better protect the accused from potential jury prejudice caused by the testimony of those additional prosecution witnesses.
The justices ruled that if a defendant doesn't question the victim's delay in reporting a sexual assault during a trial, the prosecution cannot call those witnesses to the stand, and judges must tell juries that a reporting delay should not be considered in evaluating the victim's credibility.
"I think this will eliminate a lot of unfairness in how these cases are prosecuted," said Glenn Falk, a legal aid lawyer representing the convicted father in the case. "I saw a pattern of the state putting on numerous witnesses (in many trials) to bolster the victim's testimony that she told them about the incident. There was a whole cast of witnesses on the victim's side and this was unfair to defendants."
The Supreme Court rejected the convict's bid for a new trial.
"We ... agree with ... the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions that the generally applicable rules of evidence are insufficient to remedy potential juror bias against victims who delay in reporting a sexual assault," Connecticut Justice Peter Zarella wrote in the decision.
Zarella quoted a 2005 ruling by the top court in Massachusetts in a similar case. That court cited evidence that some jurors have misconceptions about sexual assault victims, including that "real" victims would promptly disclose a sexual attack and some jurors in child sexual abuse cases may attribute the allegations to the child's imagination or improper influence from an adult.