You are a juror in the prosecution of a step-grandfather for lewd conduct with a minor, the minor being his eight or nine year old step-granddaughter, with whom he allegedly had genital-to-genital contact. The step-granddaughter has just testified to sexual molestation by her step-grandfather, including sexual intercourse, occurring on many occasions. Do you infer that the step-granddaughter could not possess the sexual knowledge that she possesses unless her step-granddaughter molested her?
According to the vast majority of courts, you do, and the widespread belief in this largely untested “sexual inference innocence theory” has led to the evisceration of the rape shield rule in many child molestation prosecutions. In his special concurrence in the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Idaho in State v. Molen, 2010 WL 90580 (Idaho.App. 2010), however, Judge David Gratton called into question this belief, and this post puts a spotlight on his opinion.
(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in a criminal case in which a person is accused of a sex crime, reputation or opinion evidence of the past sexual behavior of an alleged victim of such sex crime is not admissible.
(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in a criminal case in which a person is accused of a sex crime, evidence of a victim’s past sexual behavior other than reputation or opinion evidence is also not admissible, unless such evidence other than reputation or opinion evidence is–
(1) admitted in accordance with subdivisions (c)(1) and (c)(2) and is constitutionally required to be admitted; or
(2) admitted in accordance with subdivision (c) and is evidence of–
(A) past sexual behavior with persons other than the accused, offered by the accused upon the issue of whether the accused was or was not, with respect to the alleged victim, the source of semen or injury; or
(B) past sexual behavior with the accused and is offered by the accused upon the issue of whether the alleged victim consented to the sexual behavior with respect to which the sex crime is alleged; or
(C) false allegations of sex crimes made at an earlier time; or
(D) sexual behavior with parties other than the accused which occurred at the time of the event giving rise to the sex crime charged.
The alleged victim in Molen was S.Z., and the defendant, Michael Molen, “filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking an advance ruling that the court would admit testimony by five family members who would say that S.Z.’s mother had exposed the child to graphic sexual conduct prior to the charged offense.” According to Molen,
One of the most pressing questions the jury will ask itself is how this eight year old girl would know so much about sex unless she had actually been molested. The Defense will produce several witnesses, including the sisters and mother of [T.D.], the alleged victim’s mother, who will testify that [T.D.] has exposed her daughter [S.Z.] to a constant, graphic, sexually charged lifestyle for her entire life, including openly having sex with multiple partners with [S.Z.] in the home, openly discussing and showing sex toys and pornography in front of [S.Z.], and openly disrobing in front of other family members in the presence of [S.Z.], etc. This evidence is not only relevant under IRE Rule 401 and 402, it is crucial to the jury’s understanding of [S.Z.'s] knowledge of sexual matters and how she obtained it. Without it, the jury will make assumptions that are in no way based in reality.
The prosecution argued in response
that how an eight-year-old knows about sex is “completely irrelevant” because kids learn about sex in any number of ways at any number of different ages. The district court apparently agreed with the prosecution’s relevance argument, because it held that the testimony would not be admitted.
On Molen’s subsequent appeal, neither side raised Idaho Rule of Evidence 412, which meant that the Court of Appeals merely had to address the relevance of Molen’s proposed testimony. On this front, the Court of Appeals of Idaho noted that most other state courts had
held that evidence of a child victim’s prior exposure to sexual conduct may be relevant to show an alternative basis for the child’s sexual knowledge. For example, in a case involving four child victims, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held the trial court had erred in excluding evidence of a prior sexual assault on one of the children, a seven-year-old boy. The Court explained:
The inference that [the victim] could not possess the sexual knowledge he does unless Ms. Pullizano sexually assaulted the children greatly bolsters [the victim's] allegations. In order to rebut that inference, Ms. Pullizano must establish an alternative source for [the victim's] sexual knowledge. Evidence of the prior sexual assault is therefore a necessary and critical element of Ms. Pullizano’s defense.
Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals of Idaho found that the trial court correctly excluded Molen’s proposed testimony because “Molen’s offer of proof d[id] not demonstrate that S.Z. was previously exposed to the sort of acts and bodily conditions that were described in her report of the charged acts.” Of course, the clear implication of the court’s conclusion is that it would have found the proposed testimony admissible if S.Z. were previously exposed to the sort of acts and bodily conditions that were described in her report of the charged acts. And, as the court itself noted, the basis for finding such testimony relevant, and thus admissible, is the belief that jurors would infer that a complainant such as S.Z. could not possess the sexual knowledge that she possesses unless the defendant molested her, making the testimony necessary to rebut the inference.
Judge Gratton disagreed with this reasoning. After noting that this was indeed a case that triggered the rape shield rule, Judge Gratton noted that the majority was in essence adopting the sexual innocence inference theory. According to Judge Gratton,
the sexual innocence inference theory is based on the presumption that a jury will likely assume that a child is innocent of sexual matters and, when the child testifies to specific sexual acts, the jury will then infer that the child could not have testified to such acts unless they indeed occurred….This theory, backed by scant, if any, empirical data is, however, accepted in some fashion by a majority, but not all courts….These courts variously analyze this evidence as a way around rape shield laws or as constitutionally required despite or within the confines of rape shield laws….In order to rebut the inference, a defendant, like Molen, will seek to introduce evidence of an alternative source of sexual knowledge from which the child could describe the alleged events. In the end, if one accepts the theory, at least to some extent, evidence of a child’s prior sexual knowledge may be relevant to rebut the inference.
In addition to challenging the empirical basis for the sexual innocence inference theory, Judge Gratton took issue with the fact that the theory is treated as an inference. According to Judge Gratton, “[r]equiring analysis of the proffered evidence as rebuttal of a presumed fact or inference accords it too much weight and skews the relevance and balancing analysis.” This is because “recognizing the theory as a presumption or inference has legal meaning” as Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “presumption” as
A legal inference or assumption that a fact exists, based on the known or proven existence of some other fact or group of facts. Most presumptions are rules of evidence calling for a certain result in a given case unless the adversely affected party overcomes it with other evidence. A presumption shifts the burden of production or persuasion to the opposing party, who can then attempt to overcome the presumption.
I agree with Judge Gratton on both counts. First, there appears to be very little empirical data supporting the inference. In support of his claim that there is scant empirical data supporting the inference, Judge Gratton cited to Christopher B. Reid, Note, The Sexual Innocence Inference Theory as a Basis for the Admissbility of a Child Molestation Victim’s Prior Sexual Conduct, 91 Mich. L. Rev. 827, 830 & n.15 (1993), in which the author noted that there is “sparse empirical data which lend [the inferece] limited support [FN15]”
[FN15] At least one study argues that juries might make the sexual innocence inference in certain situations. Gail S. Goodman et al., When a Child Takes the Stand, 11 LAW & HUM. BEHAV. 27, 38 (1987) (hypothesizing that jurors may be more likely to believe a younger child because such a child does not have the sexual knowledge to be able to fabricate a detailed sexual molestation charge); See also Bruce E. Bohlman, The High Cost of Constitutional Rights in Child Abuse Cases – Is the Price Worth Paying?, 66 N.D. L. REV. 579, 582 (1990) (“[The Goodman study, supra,] concluded that while credibility usually increases as the age of the child increases, the opposite is true for children testifying in sexual abuse cases. The study found jurors are more prone to believe a younger child because the young child does not have sufficient experience or knowledge to fabricate a report of sexual activity.”) (footnotes omitted). But see id. at 582 n.21 (â€œThe literature is in the developmental stage on the issue of credibility of children, and one can certainly state that children’s credibility is not a subject on which there is universal agreement. As in every case, the credibility of each witness is for the trier of fact to determine.”); HARRY KALVEN, JR. & HANS ZEISEL, THE AMERICAN JURY 170 (1966) (“[I]n a series of child sex cases, the suggestion is that the jury has a distinctive tendency to believe the accused adult as against the accusing young child…. [This suggestion is doubtful.] One would expect that in these conflicts the choice between child and adult is extremely close, sometimes falling one way, sometimes the other. And indeed this is the case.”).
In other words, as of 1993, there was about as much evidence disputing the inference as there was evidence supporting inference, and there wasn’t much of either. I scoured opinions applying the inference since 1993 to try to see if they were relying upon new empirical data to support the inference, and I didn’t find any.
So, if we’re keeping tabs, both sides in child molestation cases have gripes based upon the lack of empirical evidence supporting credibility-based rules. As noted above, prosecutors can claim that scant empirical evidence supports the sexual innocence inference theory. Meanwhile, one of the justifications for Federal Rule of Evidence 414, which allows for evidence of prior acts of child molestation to be introduced against a defendant charged with child molestation was that “such cases require reliance on child victims whose credibility can readily be attacked in the absence of substantial corroboration. 140 Cong. Rec. H8991 (daily ed. Aug. 21, 1994) (statement of House sponsor Rep. Molinari). And one of the main criticisms of the Rule (and Rules 413 and 415) was that it was not based upon any empirical evidence.
Now, it is bad enough that the majority of courts have adopted the sexual innocence inference theory based upon scant empirical evidence, but, as Judge Gratton noted, it is worse that these courts have given this theory the legal status of an inference. As Judge Gratton indicated, ”recognizing the theory as a presumption or inference has legal meaning,” which is why an inference is ” based on the known or proven existence of some other fact or group of facts.” For example, to establish an inference of employment discrimination, a plaintiff must demonstrate that:
(i) she is a member of a protected class; (ii) she was qualified for the position; (iii) she was subjected to an adverse employment decision; and (iv) either the position remained open or she was replaced by someone not a member of his protected class.
And the consequence of a plaintiff establishing this inference is that it shifts the burden of production to the employer to proffer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its action. Similarly, when a court recognizes the sexual innocence inference, the burden shifts to the prosecution to establish the irrelevancy of past sexual behavior by the alleged victim, a burden courts generally find that the prosecution cannot establish. But again, where is the evidence to support the inference? In my review of precedent applying the inference, I have never seen a defendant present anything more than the mere assertion that the jury would likely infer that the alleged victim could not possess the sexual knowledge she does unless molested by the defendant. And, as noted, there is scant empirical evidence to support the inference.
Such a paucity of evidence is insufficient to support inferences in any other context. So, why do court continue to adopt the sexual innocence inference theory?