Testimony of a forensic interviewer who is unaware of the circumstances of the particular child abuse case may be admitted: Court of Appeals of Arizona

Forensic interviewing is a first step in most child protective services investigations, one in which a professional interviews a child to find out if he or she has been maltreated. In addition to yielding the information needed to make a determination about whether abuse or neglect has occurred, this approach produces evidence that will stand up in court if the investigation leads to criminal prosecution. Properly conducted forensic interviews are legally sound in part because they ensure the interviewer’s objectivity, employ non-leading techniques, and emphasize careful documentation of the interview. Recently, the Court of Appeals of Arizona, in State of Arizona v. Julio Cesar Garcia-Meza (2015 Ariz. App. Unpub. LEXIS 299), had the opportunity to review the admissibility of the expert testimony of a forensic interviewer in a trial involving allegations of child sexual abuse where the expert has no knowledge of the circumstances of the case.

The defendant was charged with several sex-related offenses committed over approximately ten years beginning when the victim was six years old – among which five were for molestation of the child, and four of the charges were for sexual abuse. During the trial, Wendy Dutton, a forensic interviewer at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, testified on behalf of the state regarding research of child sexual abuse and her experience working with such cases. Interestingly, Dutton was not aware of the circumstances of the particular case and her testimony was restricted to explaining topics such as the behavior patterns of child victims and their diverse reactions to sexual abuse.

The defendant, appealing from the trial court verdict having found him guilty on all counts, challenged, inter alia, the admission of Dutton’s testimony, arguing that it was not helpful to the the jury in appreciation of the facts of the case as Dutton stated that all minor victims might not respond to sexual abuse in the same manner. The Court of Appeals interestingly found this very aspect of Dutton’s testimony to be weighing in favour of its relevance during trial. The Court observed that the expert testimony in this case was instrumental in determining the credibility of the victim, as the opinion expressed by Dutton that ‘almost any behavior could be consistent with being a victim of child sexual abuse’ sought to dispel common misconceptions that such victims will always react or respond to abuse in the same manner. Therefore, the Court concluded that Dutton’s opinions were properly admitted to help the jury to understand the testimony of the victim and evaluate her credibility.