We may be able to add a new group to the list of the complicit: state lawmakers who have yet to correct a glaring miscarriage of justice — the fact that victims of sex crimes are not allowed to call on expert testimony. As we saw this week in the Sandusky trial, such testimony is fair game for the defense. A psychologist who testified for Sandusky's defense theorized that he suffers from a "histrionic personality disorder" that explained a need for attention and the"grooming" behavior he exhibited toward his alleged victims. We're not sure anyone bought it, but the testimony at least provided possible context for Sandusky's behavior toward the young men he befriended.
Too bad the victims of sexual abuse and crimes aren't afforded the same right. Pennsylvania is the only state in the union in which expert testimony on behalf of victims of sex offenses is not allowed. And such testimony can be critical to explain the behavior of victims of sex crimes, who often, for example, may not go to the police right away or ever, or who may develop a relationship with their offender. The heart-rending testimony of some of the young men in the Sandusky trial might, at face value, suggest by their silence and complicity that they were not victims, but experts can and do maintain that such behavior can be typical.
The Sandusky case is only the most recent high-visibility example of why this injustice should be corrected. In 2007, a Philadelphia jury acquitted Jeffrey Marsalis of raping seven women who testified against him, though a jury convicted him of two sexual-assault counts at a second trial. Ultimately, after another trial in Idaho, he was convicted of rape and received a life sentence. Many believed the first acquittal was due to the fact that the behaviors of the women after the rapes were inconsistent with being "real" victims of crime; expert testimony that is allowed in other states cites research that describes common victim behavior that may be counterintuitive to what juries might believe.
It was this case, in fact, that inspired state Rep. Cherelle Parker to push for change: She first drafted a bill in 2007; for five years, it has gone nowhere. Recently, the bill was approved by the Senate, and now sits in a House committee. It may languish there until Parker has to start all over.
Why? Do lawmakers take special pride in being out of touch and out of date? Do they agree with Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cappy, who, in an opinion on one of the cases that has formed this law, found that such testimony unfairly bolsters the credibility of the victim? In that case, the victim was a 10-year-old boy.
The Legislature is considering a few necessary reforms that the Sandusky case has illuminated — on statute of limitations, and on reporting. Giving victims of sex crimes fuller justice, and a fairer day in court, is long overdue.