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Introduction of Accuser’s Interview Leads to Reversal in Molestation Case

September 10, 2021

Considering the lack of evidence to corroborate the alleged victim’s testimony, the Court could not say that the improperly admitted statements did not contribute to the jury’s verdict.

In Castaneda v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in permitting the State to introduce in its entirety a videotaped interview of the alleged victim. The Court ruled that the video itself was not admissible and its admission prejudiced the defendant since it provided much greater detail about the alleged abuse than what was testified by her on the witness stand.

Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of two counts of child molestation. He was accused by his adult daughter of molesting her when she was between the ages of 11 and 16. She was 20 years old when she made the allegation initially to a therapist and then the police. After reporting this to the police, a detective interviewed her at length and the interview was recorded.

State’s Motion to Introduce the Alleged Victim’s Interview

The State filed a motion in limine prior to trial where it contended that it wished to present evidence of prior consistent statements made by the alleged victim to other people – including statements she made to the detective as well as her therapist. The State argued that the defendant’s plea of not guilty was sufficient to call her veracity into question which would make these prior statements admissible. At first, the defendant’s trial attorney conceded that the State was correct and did not oppose the motion.

During the trial, when the State indicated that it was planning to play the entire recorded interview with the alleged victim, the defendant’s attorney did object. She said she misunderstood and that she assumed that the State just planned to have the detective testify to what was said in the interview. She argued that allowing the jury to see the entire recorded interview was akin to letting “them hear her testify all over again.”

Ultimately, the trial court ruled that the State would be permitted to play the recorded interview for the jury in its entirety. Portions of the nearly two-hour interview were eventually redacted but 43 minutes of it was played at trial during the testimony of the detective.

Was the Interview Admissible as a Prior Consistent Statement?

Under Georgia law, a party may introduce a prior consistent statement in order to rehabilitate a witness if the prior statement “logically rebuts an attack made on the witness’s credibility” or is being offered to respond to a claim “against the witness of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive.”

So, the first issue is whether the alleged victim’s prior statements were necessary to “logically rebut” an attack made on her credibility. The Court held that while the defendant did attack her credibility at trial, the playing of the video recorded interview with the detective did not logically rebut that attack. It stated that the recording was simply “a chance for the victim to testify again to stuff that she wasn’t asked about” on the witness stand.

The Court noted that the recorded interview contained a lot of statements and allegations that were never made by the alleged victim in her trial testimony including: alleged emotional and verbal abuse against her, her siblings, and her mother; that she believed she witnessed the defendant watching pornography; that she would engage in acts of cutting herself; that the defendant would restrict her from eating at times; and testimony that the defendant generally exhibited abusive personality traits.

As to whether the evidence was necessary to rebut a claim of recent fabrication, influence or motive, prior consistent statements are only admissible if they were made “before the alleged fabrication, influence, or motive came about.” The Court noted that the claim made by the defense was that the fabrication, influence or motive occurred prior to the alleged victim’s outcry. Thus, the Court held that since the statements to the detective were made afterwards, they were not admissible for this purpose. The Court also pointed out that the impeachment of the alleged victim was mostly centered around the inconsistencies in her various statements.

Does This Error Warrant Reversal of Defendant’s Conviction?

The Court held that the statements made in the interview with the detective were “pure hearsay” and served no purpose other than to bolster the alleged victim’s credibility. It also found that the rest of the State’s case was rather thin in comparison to the improperly admitted interview.

It was noted that the alleged victim’s testimony at trial was a mere 28 pages with very little of it directly related to the charges in the indictment. The interview, however, was much lengthier and included details that were never testified to at trial, including specific timeframes when these acts allegedly occurred.

The Court concluded that considering the lack of any physical evidence or anything else to corroborate the alleged victim’s testimony, it could not say that the improperly admitted statements did not contribute to the jury’s verdict. As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s child molestation convictions and granted his motion for a new trial.

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