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Court Finds Testimony About Cultural Generalizations Inadmissible

May 13, 2022

The Georgia Supreme Court held that a school counselor's testimony about the attitude towards sexual abuse in Latino culture was inadmissible.

In Martinez-Arias v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether it was permissible to allow a school counselor to testify about generalizations of Latino culture and its relationship to a child’s delayed disclosure of sexual abuse. The Court found that it was error to permit this testimony but nonetheless affirmed the defendant’s child molestation conviction.

The defendant was charged with the offenses of child molestation, aggravated child molestation, and aggravated sexual battery based on allegations that he molested his girlfriend’s niece over the course of a three-year period. At issue on appeal was the testimony of a middle school counselor who was not tendered as an expert but was permitted to testify regarding certain aspects of Latino culture. The Court of Appeals held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to admit the testimony. The Georgia Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

Testimony at Issue

At trial, the State called the counselor who worked at the middle school where the girl attended. She testified that she was of Latino decent and that the majority of the students at her school were “of Latino background.” She stated that she had associate’s degrees in criminal justice and early childhood education, as well as a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in school counseling. She testified that she wrote her “senior research paper” in college on the topic of incest and its prevalence in Latino communities.

The prosecutor asked her questions regarding the attitude towards sexual abuse in “Latino culture.” She stated that there is a “machismo culture” where the man is seen as the “leader of the home, the one that you have to serve; that many times the mothers or the females are supposed to be submissive to…” She testified that, as a result, there is a lack of reporting in child sexual abuse cases. She stated there is often a lack of support for the child victims due to the other family members not wanting to get involved.

The school counselor then testified regarding her personal interactions with the alleged victim. She described her as an “extraordinary student” but one who was quiet and wouldn’t “tell you everything immediately.” She said that the girl’s father was not supportive of her and “dismissed the fact that it was sexual molestation because there had not been any penetration.”

Was the Counselor’s Testimony Admissible?

The Supreme Court found that much of the counselor’s testimony concerning her personal interactions with the girl was admissible, including even the statements regarding her perceptions and inferences that she made about the girl’s personality and behavior. The Court cited to O.C.G.A. § 24-7-701 which states that a lay witness may give opinions about the witness’ observations or perceptions.

However, the Court held that the counselor’s testimony concerning Mexican and Latino culture was not relevant nor admissible at trial. At the outset, the Court pointed out that both the trial court and the Court of Appeals held that the testimony was relevant to explain the girl’s seven-year delay in disclosing the alleged abuse. The Court found though that the testimony was “so broad and generalized” that there was no basis to conclude that these cultural dynamics were even present in this girl’s family or household.

The Court noted that there was no testimony at all about this particular girl’s cultural identity, so the mere fact that she and some of her family members had once lived in Mexico was insufficient to conclude that these general characterizations about Latino culture would even apply to them. The Court pointed to similar decisions it had reached in cases dealing with generalized testimony about topics such as gang culture, federal drug investigations, and “Korean businessmen.”

Guidance for the Trial Courts

The Court provided some guidance to trial courts on how to address the relevancy of “cultural or ethnic evidence” in future cases. The first step is to identify the purpose of the testimony. The second step is to determine whether or not such testimony actually makes a particular fact in the case more or less likely. It is this second step that the Court found lacking in the present case.

The Court left the door open for the possibility that testimony about cultural generalizations or stereotypes might be relevant and admissible in the right case. The Court limited its holding to the particular facts and testimony in this case.

Court’s Finding That the Error was Harmlesss

Despite its ruling that the testimony was inadmissible, the Court ultimately found that the admission of the testimony was harmless since it was unlikely that it contributed to the jury’s verdict. The Court based this on the fact that the testimony was general in nature, the State never insisted or argued that the testimony proved that these acts occurred, and that the testimony concerning delayed disclosure was cumulative of the State’s forensic interview expert who explained why children generally would have difficulty disclosing sexual abuse. Essentially, the Court found that the improper testimony did not serve to either bolster the girl’s credibility nor incriminate the defendant.

Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred in ruling that the testimony was admissible but still affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

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