Arizona Appeals Court Confirms Allowable Testimony of Child Sexual Abuse Expert

Plaintiff was charged with 7 counts of sexual conduct with a minor.  He appealed the conviction on numerous grounds, one being the admittance of child sexual abuse expert testimony.  The court confirmed the opinion of the trial court.

Facts: In this case (State of Arizona v. Richard Portugal Ortiz – Arizona Court of Appeals – October 16th, 2015), Ortiz, the wrestling coach of the victim, was charged with sexual conduct with a minor.  In order to prove its case against Ortiz, the state hired Dr. Wendy Dutton, a child sexual abuse expert witness. Ortiz then filed a motion to exclude this testimony, based on the grounds that the probative value of the testimony was outweighed by the potential for unfair prejudice.

Dr. Dutton was called as a “blind” expert, by the state, in that she would not offer opinions about the facts of the case, but would instead provide general opinions about the characteristics of child sexual abuse victims.  Dr. Dutton explained that victims of child sexual abuse often disclose what happened in a “piecemeal” fashion, with the least embarrassing details first.  In addition, she stated that children will under report the abuse acts that occurred.  She also stated that children are more likely to be abused by someone they know and that the abuser will acquaint, or “groom” the child with physical contact or sexuality.

Discussion:  Ortiz argued that Dr. Dutton’s testimony should be excluded because it was within the common knowledge of the juror and would not be helpful.  The court disagreed, stating that child sexual abuse testimony has routinely been allowed by the courts.

In addition, Ortiz argued that some of Dutton’s comments were prejudicial and outweighed any probative value.  First, he stated that her comments that most child abuse victims know their accusers is irrelevant to this case.  Second, he stated that the testimony implied that he had committed other offenses.  Third, he argued that the victim’s piecemeal disclosure was not relevant to the actual situation of this case.  Last, Ortiz takes issue with the “grooming” process explained by Dutton in that it doesn’t fit the facts of this case and, therefore, are not probative.

The state rebutted, and the court agreed with, each of these arguments.  In the first instance, Ortiz states that the fact that child abusers know their victims is not a “behavioral characteristic” and is irrelevant to the case.  The court disagreed, stating that the victim’s credibility is of import to this case and will help in determining the credibility of the witness and analyzing the facts.  Second, regarding the testimony of committing other offenses, Ortiz did not provide any evidence in Dutton’s testimony that would imply that was true.  Third, involving the piecemeal disclosure, Ortiz states that the victim did not make her disclosures to a forensic interviewer.  The court stated that Dr. Dutton mentioned that victims ofchild sexual abuse will more likely disclose their situation to a forensic interviewer, but that it was not necessary.  Last, Ortiz states that the “grooming” aspect of the case does not fit what actually happened, and is not probative.  Again, the court disagreed.

Held: The order to allow the testimony of Dr. Dutton was affirmed.