A Douglas County judge mistakenly let an expert witness vouch for the credibility of a child victim, prompting the state Court of Appeals to overturn the defendant’s sexual assault convictions.
Joseph Ramirez was sentenced to 16 years to life based on his 2018 trial for allegedly repeatedly sexually abusing a child. There were no witnesses to the reported assaults and Ramirez denied the allegations.
Ramirez challenged his convictions based on testimony a licensed clinical social worker provided at trial. A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals noted that expert witness testimony can help the jury better understand the evidence in a case, particularly a case involving the psychological implications of sexual assault in the childhood.
“But our appellate courts have long held that where expert testimony breaches the boundary of jury education and instead comments on the truthfulness of an accuser, the testimony is ‘patently inadmissible,'” wrote Judge Timothy J. Schutz in the opinion of February 17.
During Ramirez’s trial, the social worker explained why child victims may not fully disclose their abuse and explained how sexual assault can affect a child’s brain. The jury then asked about the social worker’s experience with children making false accusations and wondered how often this scenario occurs.
The social worker replied that the children she sees for treatment “have already gone through a process of investigation and have been determined to be substantiated in terms of the allegations.”
She asked if she should continue further, and District Court Judge Shay K. Whitaker allowed her to answer “as you feel the need to.” The social worker continued to talk about studies involving false accusations by children.
“In those cases,” she said, “there was a number that was about 2.5% of children who had made a — where there was an allegation made and it was found that the child had intentionally made this (false) claim, and in the subsequent study about 1.5%.”
The appeals panel found two problems with allowing these responses at trial. First, his comments suggested that there was a process to weed out unsubstantiated allegations from children. Second, by testifying that studies have shown that between 1.5% and 2.5% of children make false accusations, it meant that the jury had a 97.5% to 98.5% chance of correctly convicting Ramirez.
Schutz said the error should have been “obvious” to the judge and the attorneys handling the case. Given the lack of physical evidence of an assault, Ramirez’s conviction rested largely on whether the jury believed the alleged victim had told the truth.
“We conclude that this testimony significantly undermined the fairness of Ramirez’s trial and created serious doubt about the reliability of the jury’s guilty verdicts,” Schutz wrote. “As a result, judgments of conviction based on these verdicts cannot stand.”
Another Court of Appeals panel reached a similar conclusion last month in a Jefferson County case. In this case, the expert witness told a jury that she had only seen children who had first spoken with forensic investigators and whose allegations were found to have merit. Since the jury had already heard from the alleged victim’s forensic investigator, the Court of Appeal held that the jury could logically believe that the victim’s charges had merit based on the selection process.
Ramirez is now entitled to a new trial. The case is People c. Ramirez.