Commonwealth v. Jones

Citation240 A.3d 881
Decision Date30 October 2020
Docket NumberNo. 24 WAP 2019,24 WAP 2019
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Rod L. JONES, Jr., Appellant
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Karl Baker, Esq., for Amicus Curiae.

Brandon Paul Ging, Esq., Allegheny County Public Defender's Office, for Appellant.

Margaret B. Ivory, Esq., and Michael Wayne Streily, Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, for Appellee.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

OPINION

JUSTICE MUNDY

In this appeal by allowance, we consider whether opinion testimony from a detective concerning the behavior of child victims in response to sexual abuse, informed by that detective's training and experience, constitutes lay or expert testimony under our rules of evidence. As a necessary corollary, we also address the continued validity of our decision in Commonwealth v. Dunkle , 529 Pa. 168, 602 A.2d 830 (1992),1 in light of the legislature's enactment of 42 Pa.C.S. § 5920 (permitting expert testimony concerning victim behavior in response to sexual abuse in certain criminal proceedings involving sexual offenses). For the reasons that follow, we reverse the Superior Court's order and remand for a new trial.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Appellant Rod L. Jones, Jr. was charged with rape and various sexual offenses following allegations by his stepdaughter ("the victim") of repeated sexual abuse over a period of several years. According to the victim, the first instance of abuse occurred when she was thirteen years old. Appellant entered the victim's bedroom while she was sleeping and tried to penetrate her with his penis from behind. The victim pushed Appellant away, causing him to leave the room without completing the act. He committed additional assaults over the next several years, which included performing oral sex on the victim, forcing the victim to perform oral sex on him, and also engaging in vaginal intercourse. The victim did not tell anyone about these incidents for many years. She explained that Appellant told her no one would believe her. The victim also feared what Appellant would say about her to her mother. When the victim was seventeen years old, she eventually told her mother about the abuse.

On April 5, 2016, Appellant proceeded to a jury trial. Throughout the trial, defense counsel focused on discrepancies in the victim's recounting of events in an attempt to undermine her credibility. These discrepancies related to the timing and location of certain sexual assaults. At one point, the Commonwealth called as a witness Detective Scott Holzwarth, who interviewed the victim during the course of the investigation. The Commonwealth began its direct examination by asking Detective Holzwarth the following general questions:

[The Commonwealth]: How are you currently employed?
[Detective Holzwarth]: I'm a detective with the Allegheny County Police, and I work in the General Investigations Section.
[The Commonwealth]: How long have you been employed in this capacity?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Ten years.
[The Commonwealth]: As a detective in the General Investigations Unit, do you handle all sorts of crimes or do you have a certain type of crime that you do more of?
[Detective Holzwarth]: We do handle different types of crimes, but I do mostly crimes against people, which includes sex assaults and child abuse.
[The Commonwealth]: And if you could estimate, during the course of your career, approximately how many child sexual assault cases have you investigated?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Hundreds. I would have to do the math, but at least hundreds.

N.T. Trial, 4/6/16, at 97-98. The Commonwealth subsequently asked Detective Holzwarth questions specific to his investigation of this matter. Then, particularly relevant to this appeal, the following exchange occurred:

[The Commonwealth]: Did [the victim] indicate whether or not this had been going on multiple times?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Yes.
[The Commonwealth]: And in your training and experience, Detective, do kids often have trouble remembering each and every time when this is an ongoing incident?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Yes, they do. As a matter of fact, in our criminal complaints we normally put a little blurb in there that explains that victims
[Defense Counsel]: Your Honor, I would object to this as expert testimony. This is an opinion.
The Court: I'm going to overrule.
[The Commonwealth]: Please continue, Detective.
[Detective Holzwarth]: that explains that victims sometimes have trouble remembering exact dates when events have happened.
[The Commonwealth]: And have you also found in your training and experience with your specific cases whether or not victims will have trouble recalling in each incident that they're assaulted every single detail of the assault?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Yes.
[The Commonwealth]: And do they often times get the times that those things happened confused with other times that they discuss with you?
[Detective Holzwarth]: Yes. Very often.

Id. at 100-101. On cross examination, defense counsel asked Detective Holzwarth if it was possible that a victim's delay in reporting or inability to provide details about sexual assault incidents could mean that no abuse occurred in the first instance, to which the detective agreed. Id. at 109-110.

The jury ultimately found Appellant guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a person under sixteen years of age, unlawful contact with a minor, aggravated indecent assault, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person under sixteen years of age.2 The trial court sentenced Appellant to an aggregate term of twenty-seven to sixty years’ imprisonment. Appellant filed a post-sentence motion, which the trial court denied. He then filed a timely notice of appeal to the Superior Court.

On appeal, Appellant argued, inter alia, that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Detective Holzwarth to testify that child sexual assault victims are often unable to recall specific details and dates of sexual assaults. Appellant claimed that this evidence constituted expert testimony because it was not within the scope of knowledge possessed by the average layperson, but was rather based on the detective's specialized training and experience concerning child victim responses and behaviors to sexual assault. Appellant argued that absent qualification as an expert witness, the trial court should have precluded this testimony.

The trial court issued an opinion pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) addressing Appellant's claim that admission of the detective's testimony was improper. It explained that defense counsel's strategy at trial involved discrediting the victim. In light of these repeated attacks, the trial court concluded the Commonwealth "was entitled to question Detective Holzwarth regarding his experience with child victims." Trial Ct. Op., 5/5/17, at 9. It also recognized that while cross-examining Detective Holzwarth, defense counsel "was able to get the [d]etective to concede that an alternative reason the allegations by child victims lacked detail was that they never happened." Id. at 9-10. For this reason, the trial court alternatively concluded that any damage resulting from admission of Detective Holzwarth's testimony was remedied by defense counsel's effective cross-examination. Id. at 10.

The Superior Court affirmed in a divided, unpublished memorandum opinion. Commonwealth v. Jones , 1636 WDA 2016, 2018 WL 3598642 (Pa. Super. July 27, 2018). The majority explained that challenges to the admissibility of evidence typically rest within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Id. at *2 (citing Commonwealth v. Maloney , 876 A.2d 1002, 1006 (Pa. Super. 2005) ). It noted that an abuse of discretion "is not merely an error of judgment, but is rather the overriding or misapplication of the law, or the exercise of judgment that is manifestly unreasonable or the result of bias, prejudice, ill-will or partiality, as shown by the evidence or the record." Id. (citing Commonwealth v. Cameron , 780 A.2d 688, 692 (Pa. Super. 2001) (citation and quotation omitted)). The majority then recounted the language of Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence 701 and 702, which pertain to lay opinion and expert witness testimony, respectively. Id. at *2-3.

After reviewing the testimony at issue, the majority concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by permitting the detective, without first being qualified as an expert witness, to provide opinion testimony about the inability of child victims of sexual abuse to recall specific dates and details of sexual assaults. Id. at *4. The majority reasoned that such testimony constituted permissible lay opinion testimony because it was based on information within the detective's personal knowledge and experience, in light of observations with similar child victims of sexual abuse. Id. It was also helpful to the trier of fact and was not based upon scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge. Id. Thus, the Commonwealth was not required to qualify Detective Holzwarth as an expert witness in order for him to testify to this information. Id.

Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger filed a dissenting opinion which, in relevant part, disagreed with the majority's conclusion that the detective's testimony constituted lay opinion testimony. Id. at *8. He recognized that in Dunkle , this Court specifically found that testimony concerning the reasons why child victims of sexual abuse delay reporting incidents of sexual abuse, omit details regarding sexual abuse, and are unable to remember dates and times of instances of sexual abuse was within the understanding of lay persons and did not require expert analysis. Id. (citing Dunkle , 602 A.2d at 836-38 ). While Dunkle appears dispositive of the instant issue, Judge Strassburger noted that case predated the...

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