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Child interviewer’s vouching testimony reverses molest convictions

September 9, 2015

A man convicted of three counts of Class A felony child molesting must be retried because the trial court erred by admitting testimony from a forensic interviewer who said there was no evidence the alleged victims had been coached.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and remanded for retrial in Melvin C. Hamilton v. State of Indiana, 65A04-1412-CR-592. A jury in Posey Circuit Court convicted Hamilton of three counts but found him not guilty of a Class C felony molestation count on charges that he sexually abused his stepson’s 5- and 10-year-old foster children.

A forensic interviewer who testified that she didn’t observe any evidence that the children had been coached was inadmissible under Sampson v. State, 87S01-1410-CR-684 (July 30, 2015), Judge Michael Barnes wrote for the panel.

“It is clear under Sampson that all of (the interviewer’s) testimony regarding indicators of coaching was inadmissible. It is the type of vouching testimony deemed to improperly invade the province of the jury to assess witness credibility,” Barnes wrote.

“We cannot say that the erroneous admission of (the interviewer’s) vouching testimony was harmless. There was no corroborating evidence of Hamilton’s guilt apart from the testimony of (the alleged victims). The only value of Elfreich’s testimony was to improperly bolster the credibility (of the alleged victims).

“If there is to be a rule barring vouching testimony such as (the interviewer’s), then it is extremely difficult to imagine a scenario in which such testimony, where an objection to it was raised at trial, is harmless in a case such as this where a conviction depends entirely upon assessing the credibility of the alleged victim,” Barnes wrote.

“We conclude that the erroneous admission of (the interviewer’s) testimony likely had a substantial influence on the jury’s guilty verdicts. Therefore, we are compelled to reverse Hamilton’s convictions and to remand for a new trial.”   

 

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