On July 31, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Hudson County case of State v. J.L.G. The principal issue was whether the “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome” (CSAAS) has a sufficiently reliable basis in science to be the subject of expert testimony.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Rabner held in relevant part as follows: Defendant J.L.G. went to trial on the following charges: first-degree aggravated sexual assault; third-degree aggravated criminal sexual contact; second-degree endangering the welfare of a child; and third-degree witness tampering. Defendant’s stepdaughter, “Bonnie,” testified at trial about an escalating pattern of sexual abuse that defendant carried out against her for roughly eighteen months, from when she was fourteen and defendant was about thirty-two. Defendant pointed a gun at Bonnie and threatened to hurt her, her mother, or her brother if word got out. Bonnie told no one about the abuse, which she found embarrassing. A close friend of Bonnie’s mother visited the family apartment and found defendant lying on top of Bonnie with an erection. When Bonnie’s mother heard about the incident, she said, with a knife in hand, she would kill defendant. Bonnie was afraid her mother would follow through and denied any sexual activity. Although Bonnie claimed she wanted to tell her mother, she also did not “want her to do anything for her to get locked up.” In May or June of 2012, Bonnie used her iPhone to record the last episode of sexual abuse. The State introduced the audio recording at trial and played it during Bonnie’s testimony. The jury heard very descriptive, at times graphic, language about sexual acts. After an argument, Bonnie told her mother that defendant had “been raping her for the past year and a half.” Bonnie made a statement to the prosecutor’s office and placed two phone calls to defendant under the guidance of detectives. During the recorded conversations, defendant offered to give Bonnie money after he asked her to withdraw the allegations.
The disturbing nature of sexual abuse allegations like these provides motivation to make exceptions to our evidence rules so that prosecutors can secure convictions. However, the potential for false accusations is equally disturbing and should weigh against exceptions to the rules that have been considered essential to fair trials for hundreds of years.