Governor Tom Corbett recently signed into law legislation that will finally allow experts to testify in court regarding cases of sexual abuse.
State Representative Cherelle Parker, D-Phila., who sponsored the bill, was immensely pleased that the measure received virtually unanimous support in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Corbett signed the bill on June 29 during a ceremony at the Harrisburg YWCA’s Violence Intervention Prevention Program Center.
"I have worked on this issue since 2006," Parker said in a press release. "It is long overdue that we bring some sense of professional context into the legal arena for cases involving sexual assault victims. If victims finally get the courage to come forward and report the abuse, they should not be further victimized by having the very normal behaviors and reactions of a sex assault victim looked upon as abnormal by a court or jury who simply isn't educated in these things."
Previously, Pennsylvania was the only state in the union that did not allow experts to testify in these cases. The new law, which becomes effective on August 28, will permit an expert to provide testimony on the counterintuitive behavior exhibited by victims of sexual assault, as well as any recognized form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and other common psychological reactions to the trauma associated with sexual assault. The new law will allow expert witnesses to testify about a victim’s response and behavior during, and after the sexual assault. Criminal justice advocates argue that expert testimony is necessary to provide jurors with the proper context in which to evaluate a victim’s behavior.
“We need to acknowledge and understand the unique dynamics of this sort of crime,’’ Corbett said in a prepared statement. “This is a complex area with many shades of gray that require someone to explain to jurors why things unfolded the way they did. The law needs truth, but it also needs context. This bill helps us in the search for justice.’’
During the Catholic priest sex abuse trial here in Philadelphia, Mark Bukowski, one of the alleged victims of James Brennan, offered detailed testimony about the sexual abuse and the psychological trauma that followed. Bukowski is now 30 years old and was in the 8th grade when Brennan molested him. Brennan’s defense attorney, William Brennan (no relation) tore into the victim’s testimony, repeatedly attacking his credibility, his criminal past, his drug use and some inconsistencies in his statements to investigators.
The jury was unable to reach a consensus regarding the charges against Brennan, but in the case against former assistant Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, a jury found him guilty on 45 out of 48 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky’s defense also attacked the credibility of the victims.
"Research shows that victims of sex crimes behave in a number of ways, but because of the myths regarding sex crimes, jurors perceive some of those behaviors, such as a failure to immediately report the crime, as compelling evidence of a victim's lack of credibility," Parker said. "To overcome these myths, expert testimony has been deemed necessary in order to provide a jury with the proper context to evaluate a victim's behavior."