Pair of Pennsylvania scandals lead to passage of expert-witness law

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July 6, 2012

By Maresa Strano


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: As silver lining goes, in the wake of the trial that landed ex-Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky in prison for the rest of his life (and then some),[1] the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will have to settle for being the last state in the nation to permit the testimony of sexual abuse experts in its courtrooms.[2]

Effective August 28, House Bill 1264 welcomes psychologists and other accredited sexual abuse specialists to testify on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense about victims' responses "to assault and abuse in general, but not to a witness' credibility," in relevant criminal court cases.[3] The purpose of the law is to close any loopholes or grey areas that contributed to accused sex offenders getting off on technicalities in the past, as well as to eliminate misunderstandings which can arise from the counter-intuitive behaviors of sexual trauma victims with respect to their alleged abusers, and unduly skew the jury to favor the defense. "Jury members unaided by this expert testimony may interpret victim behavior in flawed and biased ways according to their own erroneous beliefs," Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner said in support of the measure.[4]

According to its chief sponsor, State House Rep. Cherelle Parker (D), the expert-witness bill floated around the state legislature for six years until the paralleling Penn State and Philadelphia Archdiocese scandals - which resulted in the 45 convictions for Sandusky and one for Monsignor William J. Lynn for child endangerment - spurred Pennsylvania lawmakers to rally for its approval.[4] The bill, which covers "all crimes that require registration as a convicted sex offender, such as rape, sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and child sex offenses,"[3] was signed by Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett on June 29, 2012, in a ceremony at the Harrisburg YWCA's Violence Intervention Prevention Program center.[5]

Explaining the initial stall and later acceleration in the law's lifeline, Parker cited the difficulty of striking the right "balance" given the sensitivity of the subject matter.[3] The high-profile trials, both of which concluded the day after the bill with unanimous support in the General Assembly, brought a certain level of disgrace upon two revered institutions in Pennsylvania. Legislators wanted to insure against the risk of public pressure and private passions influencing the language of the law in a way that could give the prosecution an implicit advantage over the defense.

The introduction of expert-witness testimony is expected to render a standard in the way sex crimes are prosecuted wherein defendants who lack the funds to hire their own experts will claim, not entirely without merit, that they cannot compete, said Professor David Harris, who teaches at law at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's definitely more useful to the prosecution, whether it is titled like that or not."[3]

Corbett, who oversaw the Sandusky investigation as former Pennsylvania attorney general prior to his election as governor, commented solemnly on the bill's passage, saying, "My hope is we never have to use this law. I hope the sexual acts with children don't take place," said Corbett.[3]

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