People v. Bledsoe

Decision Date14 June 1984
Docket NumberCr. 23106
Citation203 Cal.Rptr. 450,36 Cal.3d 236,681 P.2d 291
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 681 P.2d 291 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. William McKee BLEDSOE, Defendant and Appellant.

Michael R. Collins, Huntington Beach, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for defendant and appellant.

Quin Denvir, State Public Defender, and Lisa Short, Deputy State Public Defender, as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and appellant.

George Deukmejian and John K. Van de Kamp, Attys. Gen., Robert H. Philibosian, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., Daniel J. Kremer, Asst. Atty. Gen., Michael D. Wellington, Patricia D. Benke and Louis R. Hanoian, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

Robin B. Johansen, Kathleen J. Purcell, Joseph Remcho and Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, San Francisco, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and respondent.

KAUS, Justice.

Defendant William McKee Bledsoe appeals from a conviction of forcible rape. (Pen.Code, § 261, subd. (2).) The principal issue on appeal is the propriety of the trial court's admission of expert testimony by a rape counselor that, after the incident in question, the alleged victim suffered from "rape trauma syndrome." As we explain, although in a rape prosecution expert testimony on the after effects of rape may be admitted for a variety of purposes, we conclude that the evidence in this case was not admissible for the purpose for which it was offered--namely, to prove that a rape had occurred. We also conclude, however, that it is not reasonably probable that the error in admitting the testimony affected the verdict. Accordingly, we affirm.


The prosecution's evidence revealed the following facts. On November 13, 1981, Melanie, then 14 years old, went to a party at a friend's home in Huntington Beach. Her mother drove her to the party. Melanie said that she would get a ride home between 11:30 and midnight from one of her boyfriend's friends. She knew most of the people at the party, including defendant Bledsoe, aged 28, who was also an invited guest. At the party Melanie moved throughout the house having casual conversations with her friends; she did not spend much time with her boyfriend because he seemed to be angry with her, although she did not know why. During the party Melanie drank some beer--taking sips from other people's cups--and used a small quantity of cocaine that one guest had brought to the party. Defendant had several cups of beer but no cocaine.

About 11 p.m., Melanie asked defendant if he would drive her home and he agreed. After leaving the party they first stopped at a friend's house, intending to pick up a girlfriend of Melanie's who was to spend the night at her house. After learning that her friend could not sleep at her house after all, Melanie and defendant began to drive to Melanie's home, but on the way defendant told her that he needed to stop by his house--a shack or trailer in a somewhat isolated area about 10 minutes away--to pick up some money. On the way, Melanie noticed a knife under the driver's seat; when she picked it up and asked what it was for, defendant said simply that "it comes in handy" and asked her to put it back. She did.

When they arrived at defendant's house, he invited Melanie in and she entered because she needed to use the bathroom. As she was zipping up her skirt in the bathroom, defendant came up behind her and put a rag with a strong odor over her mouth, making her dizzy. He then began pulling her into the living room; she kicked and hit him and, at one point, freed herself and ran to the door. When she could not open it, he grabbed her, struck her face with his hand and threw her onto the couch. Straddling her, he used one hand to hold her down and the other to attempt again to cover her mouth with the odor-filled rag. In the process, a button was ripped from her skirt or blouse.

Defendant then told her that he would cut her throat if she did not do what he wanted. He also told her that there were "other guys" in the house who would do the same thing to her if she did not cooperate. She stated that he put his hand over the edge of the couch and that she thought he had a knife. Believing his threats and in fear for her life, Melanie did not offer any further resistance.

After taking off their clothes, defendant told Melanie he was "going to make her a woman." He removed a tampon from her and had sexual intercourse with her. Afterward, she begged him to take her back to the party, kissing him and promising not to tell anyone what had happened. He agreed to bring her back. As she waited outside his house for him, she became dizzy and vomited. On the way back to the party he said: "I don't care if you tell anybody what I did because it was worth it."

Defendant dropped her off at the house where the party had taken place. When she entered the house she was crying and extremely upset and told the friends who were present what had happened; they tried to comfort her and called the police. Several of the male guests at the party, enraged by the incident, drove to defendant's residence to confront him. He met them with a bayonet in hand and denied that he had attacked Melanie; the group attacked him, knocking him unconscious. Some time later, the police came to investigate and found defendant bleeding badly; he told them he could not remember how he had received his injuries. He was arrested and charged with (1) forcible rape, (2) use of a weapon during the commission of the rape, (3) assault with a deadly weapon, and (4) false imprisonment.

At the trial, Melanie testified to most of the facts related above. Several witnesses confirmed that as soon as Melanie was dropped off by defendant after the incident, she reported that she had been raped, was extremely upset and emotionally overwrought, and had sustained numerous bruises to her face and other parts of her body during the time she was alone with him. The investigating police officers and examining doctor similarly testified to Melanie's emotional trauma and physical injuries in the period immediately following the incident. 1 In addition, Melanie's mother testified that the next morning Melanie was "very frightened, sometimes almost hysterical, cried a great deal, almost in shock." When asked whether Melanie had had any type of "emotional problems or outbursts" since the incident, her mother responded that she was "despondent, depressed, nightmares, bouts of crying, inability to make decisions, confusion."

As the final witness in its case-in-chief, the prosecution called Leslie Jacobson-Wigg, a rape counselor who had treated Melanie on a number of occasions after the incident and who the prosecution indicated would testify that Melanie was suffering from "rape trauma syndrome." Defense counsel requested that the court hold a hearing outside of the presence of the jury pursuant to Evidence Code section 402, subdivision (b) 2 to determine the admissibility of the evidence that was to be elicited from the counselor. Although the court had initially indicated that it would hold such a hearing, it ultimately changed its mind, explaining that it felt that "it is wasteful to conduct a 402 hearing in that if the court determines, in a hearing conducted before the jury, that the witness lacks qualification to form an expert opinion, the court will disallow the forming of opinion and information before the jury and the testimony would have no value and no meaning and the court would thereby not have to hear the testimony twice."

Defense counsel objected to this procedure, arguing that it was improper to permit the witness to testify "without a more sufficient offer of proof as to relevancy. I don't understand the relevance behind her testimony ... we're getting into collateral issues of this particular victim's subsequent therapy, which I don't feel appropriately deals with her observations on the evening of the 13th." The court overruled the objection, stating: "The relevance obviously is that a rape occurred and the continuing condition and strife of the victim is further evidence of the fact that a rape occurred, as opposed to evidence that, in fact, a rape did not occur." On this basis, the court denied the request for a section 402 hearing and permitted the rape counselor to testify immediately before the jury.

After describing her qualifications as a licensed marriage, family and child counselor with considerable experience in counseling rape victims, 3 Jacobson-Wigg was asked: "[B]ased on your training and experience and your own personal interviews, is there any set pattern of reaction on the part of rape victims to the event itself?" She responded: "There is something that's coined rape trauma syndrome, which is the umbrella terminology for what a rape victim experiences and it basically describes parameters that I think, you know, 99.9 percent rape victims are going to fall within." 4

In explaining rape trauma syndrome, the counselor stated: "Basically what it is, it's a stress reaction; it's acute stress reaction to trauma. And the reason it's termed a stress reaction is because very typically ... an assailant in a sexual assault situation, threatens the victim with their life. So what the victim experiences is a direct threat to her life, whether or not in some cases a weapon is even in evidence .... Basically, it's an acute stress reaction to the threat of being killed, and there are three phases of the syndrome."

She then went on to describe the phases: "First is the disorientation which includes ... what is called the immediate impact reaction and that's a term that describes the emotional experience that the victim experiences ... during the rape and in the hours immediately following the rape. [p] And in the immediate impact reaction, there are two different styles that the victim will demonstrate: one is the stress style where the victim is obviously agitated, where she shows clearly that she is fearful and...

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