In re: M.P.A. – Expert Witness Testimony Isn’t Always Gospel

Tags: Sex Crimes

In Birmingham sex crimes cases, jurors often give a lot of weight to the testimony offered by so-called expert witnesses.

But a good felony defense lawyer knows that experts can be wrong – sometimes egregiously so. When that happens, it’s important that you have an attorney with the skill to appropriately challenge them.

The appeal of a sex crimes case in Texas, called In the Matter of M.P.A., addressed the conviction of a juvenile on sex crimes charges, and the issue of faulty testimony from the state’s “expert” witness.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the defendant hadn’t proven his right to any relief based on his actual innocence or the claim of an ineffective attorney. However, he was granted a new disposition (or sentencing hearing) because testimony given by a state’s expert witness – a witness upon whom they relied heavily – was false.

Here are the facts of the case, and how the court reached its conclusion:

Two juveniles, ages five and seven, accused their two cousins, ages 14 and 15, of sexual assault. The older cousins were arrested and charged with three counts each of aggravated sexual assault on a child.

The older of the two defendants pleaded guilty to the charges and struck a deal with prosecutors. The younger of the two, however, disputed the claims and his case went to trial.

During that trial, the 5-year-old did not indicate that his cousin assaulted him, but both he and the 7-year-old claimed that their 14-year-old cousin had assaulted the 7-year-old. Also, a nurse who specialized in examining sexual assault victims testified that both alleged victims testified that their older cousins had sexually assaulted them.

The 14-year-old was the only one to testify in his own defense.

In the end, he was found guilty of sexually assaulting his 7-year-old cousin.

Next came the disposition phase. This is where the court will determine what sentence the individual should be given. It was during this phase that the state offered up two witnesses: a probation officer and a licensed psychologist who provided treatment to registered sex offenders. The latter was deemed an “expert witness.”

This witness testified that based on a test of picture slides, called the Abel Assessment, he had determined that the 14-year-old had a sexual interest in girls 8 to 10 years-old and boys between the ages of 2 and 4 and also 8 to 10.

The jury ended up sentencing the 14-year-old to 20 years in prison.

Fast-forward nine months. The five-year-old recanted his testimony.

Fast-forward 11 months after that. The seven-year-old recanted as well.

Both said they had falsely accused their cousins because their mother had told them to do so, as she felt it would reflect badly on the children’s father, whom she was fighting for custody. Then, the 15-year-old recanted his confession, saying he did not sexually assault either one of his cousins.

Additionally, four years after that 14-year-old’s trial, the “expert” witness in the case entered into an order with the Texas State Board of Examiners Psychologists, saying that he had misstated in his court testimony that research had been conducted according to that Abel test.

The now-18-year-old prisoner filed a writ of habeas corpus, saying he was innocent, and it was the psychologist’s testimony, in part, that contributed to the length of his sentence.

The habeas court didn’t find credibility with regard to the recantations. It further didn’t find any problem with the psychologist’s statements.

Unfortunately, the court backed the habeas court with regard to the teen’s actual innocence, despite overwhelming evidence of it.

However, with regard to the psychologist’s statements, the court found that it was a significant factor in determining his harsh 20-year sentence.

This resulted in the court determining that the defendant must be given a new sentencing hearing, at which he could very well be released.

The case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

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