Forensic Interviewers Cannot Testify as to a Child’s Truthfulness

In State v. Briggs, a post-conviction relief (PCR) appeal that was published yesterday, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed a defendant’s convictions for criminal sexual conduct (CSC) with a minor and lewd act on a minor based on his attorney’s failure to object when the state’s forensic interviewer improperly bolstered the credibility of the child witness.

The trial lawyer not only failed to object but, on cross-examination, asked additional questions that invited the expert witness to testify that she believed the child witness was truthful.

For most people, there are few things in this world more horrifying than the sexual abuse of a child. It is shocking, it inspires action against the perpetrator, and it is important that child sexual abusers are caught and prevented from doing it again.

It is also a horrifying and life-changing experience to be wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a child. This is a fact that is often missed because the nature of the alleged crime tends to cloud the judgment of investigators, prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys.

This is why we have rules of evidence, and why we need to take special care to ensure that we are not “railroading” a defendant into a guilty plea or guilty verdict just because of the nature of the crime. Regardless of the shock value of the allegations, we need to be sure beyond any reasonable doubt that a person is guilty before labeling them for the rest of their life as a child-abuser.

What is the Purpose of a Forensic Interviewer?

Despite prosecutors’ repeated attempts to use them for this purpose, the forensic interviewer’s purpose is not to inform the jury that the child is telling the truth. That is called “witness bolstering,” it is improper, and it may result in reversal on appeal.

Evidentiary Purpose

Forensic interviewers are trained to interview children in these types of cases. Their roles include helping to learn what happened to the child, if anything, and to help prepare the child for courtroom testimony.

At trial, “The sole purpose of [a forensic interviewer’s] jury testimony is to lay the foundation for the introduction of the videotape, and the questioning must be limited to that subject.”

Most forensic interviewers are “true believers” and see themselves as passionate advocates for child victims. They emphasize “truth-telling” when they interview the child, and they desperately want to tell the jury that the child is telling the truth. They are not permitted to tell the jury that they believe a child is telling the truth, yet prosecutors continue to look for creative ways to make this type of inadmissible, unreliable, and sometimes false testimony admissible.

If you ask a forensic interviewer how many children they have determined are not telling the truth, you will most likely get the answer, “It is my job to believe the child.”

Forensic interviewers are not human lie-detectors, and they aren’t even trying to be – it is their job to believe the child.

Investigative Purpose

A forensic interviewer can also help law enforcement in determining whether a criminal investigation is necessary and whether a suspect should be charged.

This is where a forensic interviewer’s opinion on whether a child is being truthful would be incredibly useful if they weren’t trained that their job is to believe every child…

Like their opinion on a witness’ truthfulness, a forensic interviewer’s role in the investigation is not admissible testimony at trial.

SC Post-Conviction Relief (PCR) Proceedings

Myrtle Beach PCR lawyer Daniel A. Selwa can help you to investigate your post-conviction relief claims and file your PCR application.

If you have been convicted of a crime in the Myrtle Beach, Conway, or Horry County area and you believe that you have grounds for PCR based on ineffective assistance of counsel, call us or fill out our online contact form to find out how we can help.

 

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