In a recent appeal concerning a sexual assault case, he Massachusetts Appeals Court considered whether the purported ‘first complaint testimony’ must be remembered by the complainant in order to be admissible against a defendant at trial.
In Commonwealth v. Dale, the defendant appealed from his conviction of indecent assault & battery on a child under 14, arguing that the trial judge improperly admitted ‘first complaint testimony’ by the brother of the victim, who was 7 or 8 at the time of the incident. At trial, the brother testified that, at the time of the incident, the complainant had reported the abuse to him; but the complainant could not recall herself that she had, in fact, reported the abuse to her brother.
In Massachusetts, the first complaint doctrine permits a judge to admit testimony from the recipient of a victim’s initial report of sexual assault. The ‘first complaint witness’, i.e., the person to whom the sexual assault was first reported to, may also testify to the circumstances surrounding the complaint, including observations of the complainant; the events or conversation that culminated; the timing of the complaint; and other relevant conditions that might help the jury assess the truthfulness of the complainant as to the allegations of sexual abuse.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court rule that, in assessing whether the first complaint testimony is admissible at trial, it is not necessary that the complainant remember what, or if anything at all, was said. The court reasoned that the complainant’s lack of memory goes “to the weight of the evidence, not to its admissibility”.
The court specifically held that the first complaint doctrine balances the interests of a complainant, such as a child in this case, in having her credibility fairly judged on the specific facts of a case rather than unfairly judged by stereotypical thinking; with that of a defendant. This doctrine aims to provide the jury with all the information in order for them to assess the credibility of the complainant.
In other words, the Appeals Court ruled that, whether or not the complainant actually remembers relaying the circumstances of the abuse to another, the statements are still admissible. Whether or not the complainant remembers the conversation can be argued by the defendant to challenge the credibility of the complainant and the accuracy of the allegations.
In this particular case, it appears that the overwhelming reason why the court reached this decision is because the complainant here was a child at the time of the abuse. One view in the legal community is that child victims of sexual assault tend to block out the event so that their ability to remember and recall the circumstances at a later age is not out of the ordinary. On the other hand, many legal professional believe that children often tend to embellish, exaggerate or even fabricate sexual assault allegations for a variety of reasons. The Appeals Court here may have sought to balance these two views from their reasoning in this case.
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