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'Vouching testimony' not allowed in child sex abuse cases

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The state’s rules of evidence don’t allow for “vouching testimony” in child sex abuse cases to help determine when a youth isn’t exaggerating, and the Indiana Supreme Court won’t carve out an exception allowing for that testimony in these types of cases.

In Keith Hoglund v. State of Indiana, No. 90S02-1105-CR-294, the justices affirmed a judgment from Wells County that found sufficient evidence to support two Class A felony child molesting convictions and a 50-year sentence for Keith Hoglund.

Hoglund allegedly had sexually abused and showed pornographic material to one of his daughters, who was 4 years old at the time. At trial, the state called as expert witnesses a pediatrician, clinical psychologist, and mental health counselor who evaluated the girl. They each testified that the girl was “not prone to exaggerate or fantasize” about sexual matters.  The jury convicted Hoglund on two counts of child molesting, but because of double jeopardy concerns, sentenced him to 50 years on only one count.

Hoglund challenged on appeal the admission of the vouching testimony. Last year, a divided Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentence.

The Indiana justices addressed an issue that hasn’t been ruled on before – the interaction between the state’s rules of evidence and a 1984 decision in Lawrence v. State, 464 N.E. 2d 923, 925 (Ind. 1984), that allowed for corroboration of a child’s testimony in court.

The justices pointed out that Indiana is in the minority of allowing some form of vouching for child witness testimony in these types of cases. This decision gave the Indiana Supreme Court the chance to revisit Lawrence to determine whether testimony that a child witness isn’t “prone to exaggerate or fantasize about sexual matters” is consistent with Rule 704(b) prohibiting witnesses from testifying about another witnesses “truthfulness,” and whether that precedent should be interpreted as an exception to the rule of evidence.

Justice Robert Rucker wrote that in a few cases, the Court of Appeals has interpreted Lawrence as representing an exception to Rule 704(b) about permissible witness testimony, but the justices decided that a shift in public attitudes concerning allegations of child sex abuse undermines the necessity to carve out an exception.

Even though the trial court allowed the evidence improperly, the justices ruled that the admission of vouching testimony was harmless and other evidence supports the convictions and sentence.

“To summarize, we expressly overrule that portion of Lawrence allowing for ‘some accrediting of the child witness in the form of opinions from parents, teachers, and others having adequate experience with the child, that the child is not prone to exaggerate or fantasize about sexual matters,’” Rucker wrote. “This indirect vouching testimony is little different than testimony that the child witness is telling the truth. As such it is at odds with Evidence Rule 704(b). Further, we decline to carve out an exception to the rule for sex abuse cases.”

In a footnote, Rucker wrote that this new rule doesn’t undercut the court’s decision in Carter v. State, 754 N.E.2d 877 (Ind. 2001), which involved testimony from an autistic child and a psychologist who was allowed as an expert to “supplement the jurors’ insight.”

 

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