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Child Hearsay Error Leads to Reversal in Molestation Case

November 26, 2018

In Sullins v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s convictions for child molestation, sexual battery and related charges finding that the trial court improperly admitted evidence under the Child Hearsay Statute.

The defendant’s 16-year-old niece told her teacher that the defendant had touched her inappropriately on three separate occasions. The teacher then reported this to the police and the defendant was arrested for the offenses of child molestation, sexual battery and cruelty to children.

During the course of the investigation, the niece gave a videotaped forensic interview in which she described the alleged sexual acts with the defendant. At trial, the forensic interview was admitted into evidence and the investigators, in addition to other witnesses, testified about statements made to them by the niece. At the time of the trial, it was believed that these statements were admissible under the Child Hearsay Statute.

Following a bench trial, the defendant was found guilty on all counts and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

On appeal, it was argued that the admission of this evidence constituted plain error since the niece was 16 years old at the time these statements were made. The Child Hearsay Statute requires that the child be under the age of 16 at the time the statements were made. Therefore, these statements were not admissible as child hearsay or under any other recognized hearsay exception.

In determining whether this error required reversal, the Court noted that the parties and the trial court were all under the mistaken belief that the niece was under 16 at the time these statements were made. Thus, it was concluded that the trial court likely considered these hearsay statements in determining the defendant’s guilt.

The Court also pointed out that the niece provided much more detailed statements during the forensic interview than she did at trial. Plus, her mother testified that the niece told her that the first acts of molestation occurred when she was 14, which was critical to a finding of guilt on several of the charges in the indictment.

As a result, the Court found that the admission of these hearsay statements constituted plain error and required reversal of the defendant’s convictions.

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