The appeals court found that there was sufficient evidence that the mother may have influenced her daughter to make a false allegation against her stepfather.
The South Carolina Court of Appeals found that testimony from an alleged child victim’s therapist that she was treating the child for PTSD improperly bolstered the child’s credibility and should not have been permitted at trial. The Court also found that the trial court committed error when it allowed the State to redact a portion of the child’s forensic interview where she discussed a prior sexual abuse allegation against her father.
In State v. Betancourt, a fifth-grader made an allegation at school that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her since she was five years old. The allegation was made following a presentation at the school about “Stranger Danger” and inappropriate touching. The school guidance counselor then reported the allegation to the police.
The police investigator met with the girl’s mother and advised her not to speak with the child about the allegation. The investigator testified that the mother was “very shocked” and “extremely mad” when she learned about the allegation.
During the forensic interview, the girl described a red dress that belonged to her mother that she claimed her stepfather made her wear. The police searched the house and found a red dress in the girl’s room. DNA testing was conducted on the dress but no DNA belonging to the girl or the defendant was found. During the search, the mother also provided the officers with CD’s containing pornography that she said belonged to the defendant.
The mother testified that when the defendant returned to the house, she confronted him about the allegation. She stated that she asked him, “Did you do it?” and he responded “yes” and began to cry.
The defendant was convicted at trial of the offense of criminal sexual conduct with a minor and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
The mother admitted that she spoke to her daughter prior to the forensic interview despite the investigator’s instructions not to. Also, there seemed to be something suspicious about the mother’s discovery of the pornography. When she handed the CD’s to the police, one of the disc sleeves had the defendant’s social security card in it. She claimed that she had no idea that he had pornography despite being the one who located it during the search.
The defendant testified that the mother was fully aware of the pornography because they watched it together. He also stated that he would never put his social security card in the pornography CD sleeve. Lastly, he admitted that he did cry when the mother confronted him about the allegation but said that he told her he did not do this to her daughter.
The girl’s therapist testified as an expert in the “treatment of children where there’s a concern of sexual abuse and children experiencing trauma.” The defense attorney objected to her proposed testimony that she was treating the child for PTSD related to her sexual abuse. He argued that this testimony was basically suggesting that the child was, in fact, abused. The trial court permitted the testimony over the defense’s objection.
The therapist testified that the girl was displaying classic signs of PTSD – including sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. She explained that she treated her with trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy that is “an evidence-based treatment” for children “who present with signs or symptoms of PTSD that have history of trauma.”
The Court of Appeals held that this crossed the line of permissible expert testimony and improperly bolstered the child’s credibility. By stating that the therapy was “evidence-based” and “trauma-focused” with details of the child’s alleged PTSD symptoms, the Court found that the therapist’s testimony was prejudicial to the defense and required reversal of the conviction.
During the forensic interview, the girl was asked whether anyone else had ever touched her inappropriately. In response, she stated that her biological father did when she was one or two years old. She stated that she had a memory of her father “sticking his finger somewhere” when he was either changing her diaper or bathing her. The girl stated that her mother had told her in the past that her father “did really wrong stuff” to her.
The defense argued that there is no possible way that the child could remember something that happened when she was that young and surmised that this allegation had to be influenced by the mother’s statements to her. The defense argued that this was critical evidence showing that the girl was susceptible to her mother’s influence and was capable of mistaking her mother’s suggestion for a memory of an actual event. This would be used to argue that she may be doing the same thing with the allegations against her stepfather.
In ruling that it was error for the trial court to redact this statement from the interview, the Court noted that there was some genuine concern as to whether these alleged memories were actually the result of possible coaching. The Court also pointed to a couple of other portions of the interview where the mother’s possible coaching became evident. At one point, when the interviewer brought out anatomical dolls, the girl said, “Oh, my mom told me this was going to happen.” Also, at the beginning of the interview, when the girl mentioned the red dress, she said, “Oh, somebody’s going to bring it.”
Lastly, the mother testified at trial that she told her daughter she left her biological father because she believed that a man should never change a female baby’s diaper. She said she felt this way because she herself had been molested as a child.
The Court found that because the girl claimed to have an independent recollection of this prior incident involving her biological father at such a young age, it calls the remainder of her allegations into question. This is compounded by the evidence of the mother’s questioning and possible coaching of the daughter prior to the forensic interview. The Court held that the defense was significantly prejudiced by both the erroneous redaction of the forensic interview video as well as the improper bolstering testimony of the girl’s therapist.
Therefore, the Court reversed the defendant’s convictions and remanded his case back to the circuit court for a new trial.
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