Commonwealth v. Williams

Decision Date28 March 2022
Docket Number1311 EDA 2020
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. George WILLIAMS, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court

Zak T. Goldstein, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Robert F. Petrone, Philadelphia, for appellee.

BEFORE: STABILE, J., DUBOW, J., and MCCAFFERY, J.

OPINION BY STABILE, J.:

Appellant, George Williams, appeals from his judgment of sentence of thirty to sixty years' imprisonment for involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, aggravated indecent assault of a person under thirteen years of age, indecent assault of a person under thirteen years of age and unlawful contact with a minor.1 We hold that the trial court abused its discretion by permitting a supervisor from Philadelphia Children's Alliance ("PCA") to give expert testimony that it is common for child victims to "under-disclose" sexual abuse to PCA interviewers, where the PCA witness was not qualified as an expert to provide such testimony. We uphold the trial court's discretion not to provide a "prompt complaint" instruction to the jury. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment of sentence and remand for a new trial.

In September 2017, Appellant was charged with the above offenses. On October 3, 2019, following trial and several days of deliberations, the jury found Appellant guilty of all charges. On December 2, 2019, the court imposed sentence. Appellant filed timely post-sentence motions, which were denied by operation of law on June 24, 2020. This timely appeal followed. Both Appellant and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

The trial court summarized the evidence adduced during trial as follows:

The victim was twelve years old when she testified at Appellant's jury trial. In August 2016, the victim, her mother, and her brother, who is five years older than the victim, moved into Appellant's apartment on Emlen Street in Philadelphia. The victim testified that she loved Appellant "like he was family." He was "like a father figure" and her mother's best friend.
The victim described an incident where she was lying on a couch in the apartment's living room when Appellant was positioned behind her on the sofa and started to touch her. Appellant touched the victim's buttocks, breasts, and "private area" as he reached his hands into her pants and rubbed her skin. She was ten years old when Appellant began to touch her inappropriately.
The victim testified about another incident, which occurred in her bedroom. On this occasion, when the victim woke up, Appellant was in bed with her and touching her. Appellant touched the skin of the victim's breasts and buttocks. She also stated that, on more than one occasion, when she was in her bedroom, Appellant "made [her] suck on his penis."
The victim also told the jury about a different episode when the victim sat on the couch in the apartment's living room, and Appellant pulled off her shorts and underwear. Then, Appellant licked the victim's vagina with his tongue and touched her vagina with his fingers. At the time, her mother and brother were not in the apartment because they were at a laundromat.
Later, the victim, her mother, and her brother moved out of Appellant's apartment and lived at Appellant's mother's house along with Appellant's sister and her children. While there, the victim told another child that Appellant "molested" her. Then, she told her mother about what Appellant did. Upon hearing about the incidents, the victim's mother cried and vomited. Her brother "sat there in shock," and someone called the police.
Philadelphia Police Officer Charles Durham testified that he met with the victim on May 24, [2017]. The officer testified,
[S]he said that she was touched inappropriately ... underneath her dress on her vagina, and ... that she was being asked to perform oral sex as well.... [A]ll of the things that she was telling me ... happened about a month prior to me being called out to the residence and that it was a continuous action for approximately three months.
Colleen Getz, a manager of the forensic interview unit at the [PCA], testified for the Commonwealth. PCA is an independent, nonprofit child advocacy service which works with a team of individuals from the Department of Human Services, the police, local children's hospitals, and mental health services in Philadelphia. PCA brings all those organizations together to provide a joint response to allegations of child abuse. When she testified, Ms. Getz had been employed with PCA for nine years. She had conducted more than 2,300 forensic interviews, which are fact-finding, unbiased methods of questioning children. The forensic interview provides a "child with an opportunity to provide as [ ] cohesive a statement as possible without having to be questioned multiple times."
Ms. Getz confirmed that the victim was interviewed at PCA on June 6, 2017. Takeisha Allen conducted the interview but was no longer working at PCA on the date of Appellant's trial. When she interviewed the victim, Ms. Allen had worked at PCA for two years and had conducted about five hundred interviews. After Ms. Getz's testimony, the Commonwealth played a video recording of the victim's forensic interview at PCA.
The victim's brother, K.G., was seventeen years old when he testified at Appellant's trial. K.G. described the victim's relationship with Appellant as "creepy." K.G. explained, "[M]y little sister was always laying on him in some form or shape. Just either laying on his side or laying next to him ...." The victim's brother stated that the interactions between Appellant and the victim "felt wrong."
Tamika Weaver, the victim's mother, confirmed that she and her children lived with Appellant in his apartment on Emlen Street. Ms. Weaver stated that Appellant's behavior never troubled her. After moving out of his apartment, Ms. Weaver learned of the incidents involving Appellant and her daughter.
Appellant's wife, Vivian Williams, testified that she never saw any inappropriate contact between the victim and Appellant.
Appellant testified on his own behalf and claimed that he did not molest, sexually assault, or inappropriately touch the victim.

Trial Court Opinion, 4/30/21, at 3-5 (record citations omitted).

We note several other important facts from the record. The alleged assaults took place between August 2016, when the victim and her family moved into Appellant's apartment, and April 2017, when the victim and her family moved out. According to the victim, Appellant began sexually abusing her shortly after her tenth birthday, December 22, 2016, and after he impregnated the victim's mother. N.T. 9/26/19, at 55. By that time, the victim had come to "love him like he was family" and view him as her "god-dad" and "father figure." N.T. 9/26/19, at 49-50. She did not report the assaults while she lived with Appellant because he had been hitting the victim's brother, and she did not want to get hit herself. Id. at 65. She also did not want to tell her mother, explaining, "She was pregnant and she ... might not have been in the right state of mind for me to say anything to her." Id.

In April 2017, the victim moved with her family into Appellant's mother's residence. One month later, in May 2017, the victim reported the assaults to Appellant's niece. Id. at 70-71; N.T. 9/27/19, at 77-78. Even then, she was scared to report the incidents to her mother, because she was afraid that her mother "would lose her mind and hurt [Appellant] or get hurt." N.T. 9/26/19, at 72.

The victim gave markedly incomplete stories about Appellant's alleged sex acts during her interviews. She told the responding police officer only that Appellant had touched her inappropriately. Id. at 119-121. She described six specific incidents to a PCA investigator. N.T. 9/27/19, at 16-17. The victim claimed at trial that Appellant made her perform oral sex on him, N.T. 9/26/19, 51-64, but she did not make this claim to investigators in multiple pretrial interviews. Id. at 95. Moreover, she testified at a preliminary hearing in a manner that showed that she simply did not understand the requirement that she tell the truth in court. Id. at 83. She in fact testified that she would lie under oath if someone else told her to do so. Id.

Against this factual background, we describe the testimony by the PCA supervisor, Getz, in greater detail. On direct examination, Getz, a Commonwealth witness, testified about services provided by PCA, her training and responsibilities at PCA, the type and manner of questioning involved in a forensic interview of a minor victim of sexual abuse, the identity of the person who interviewed the victim in the present case, and the date of the interview. The Commonwealth asked no other questions of Getz on direct examination.

On cross-examination, in response to questions from defense counsel, Getz testified that the person who interviewed the victim later obtained a new job, and that Getz had reviewed the report of the interview and the incidents described by the victim during the interview. Defense counsel asked Getz whether any of the "six specific incidents" that the victim described, "were [regarding Appellant] actually putting his penis in her mouth." N.T., 9/27/19, at 16-17. Getz answered, "To my understanding, no." Id. at 17.

On re-direct examination, the prosecutor asked, "[I]n your nine years of experience, is it unusual for a child to under-disclose at the PCA?" Id. at 21. Getz answered, "It is not." Id. The prosecutor asked, "Why?" Id. Defense counsel objected on the grounds that the question called for irrelevant and expert testimony. Id. at 21-22. The court overruled the objection. Id. at 22. Getz testified:

Disclosure is a process, not a one-time event, and it can sort of run a full range of the spectrum. There are times when children are ready to disclose. This is what we call active disclosure, when something happens and the child makes an outcry and is ready to describe everything that has
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3 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Lind
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • April 5, 2023
    ... ... testimony on the tendency of child victims to under-disclose ... incidents of sexual abuse "by disclosing a' little ... bit' at a time" is subject to expert witness ... qualification requirements during sexual assault ... prosecutions. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 274 A.3d ... 722, 732 (Pa.Super. 2022), appeal denied, 2023 WL ... 109376 (Pa. Jan. 5, 2023) (holding that trial court abused ... ...
  • Commonwealth v. Padikal
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • September 14, 2022
    ...overwhelming that the detective's fleeting recorded assertion about Padikal's character cannot have contributed to the verdict. See Williams, 274 A.3d at 735. Therefore, on Padikal's first issue no relief is In his second issue, Padikal asserts that the evidence of his possession of a gun w......
  • Commonwealth v. Gibson
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • August 29, 2022
    ...v. Williams, 274 A.3d 722, 729 (Pa.Super. 2022). Absent an abuse of discretion, we defer to the court's admittance of evidence. See id. "An abuse of discretion may not be found merely because an appellate court might have reached a different conclusion, but requires a result of manifest unr......

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