State v. Pettis, 84-129-C

Decision Date26 February 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-129-C,84-129-C
Citation488 A.2d 704
PartiesSTATE v. George A. PETTIS. A.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

BEVILACQUA, Chief Justice.

This is an appeal by the defendant from a judgment of conviction entered by a Superior Court justice sitting with a jury on a charge of first-degree sexual assault upon a mentally retarded thirteen-year-old girl, in violation of G.L.1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 11-37-2. 1 The trial justice denied the defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal and for a new trial.

The record reveals that on October 3, 1983, prior to trial, a hearing was held outside the presence of the jury to determine the victim's competency to testify. During questioning by the attorneys and the trial justice, the victim testified that she could not explain the difference between the truth and falsehood, that she did not understand the consequences of lying, but that she would describe the events as she remembered them. At the conclusion of the voir dire, the trial justice ruled that she was competent to testify.

During the trial, the victim testified that defendant was a neighbor. On the date of the assault, defendant asked her to go to the store for him, and when she returned, she accompanied him into his house. She further testified that he took her into his bedroom and undressed her. 2 The victim stated that defendant then undressed himself and put her on the bed and put "his thing" inside her. She said when he did so, it hurt and caused her to cry. She told the court that she waited until defendant moved from the neighborhood before she revealed to her mother what had happened because defendant threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

The state, in completing its case, called only one other witness, Dr. Almena Palombo, who had examined the victim on September 20, 1982, some three months after the assault. She testified that the victim's hymen was not completely intact, but that she could not give an opinion on whether penetration had occurred. Her inability to give an opinion arose from a three-month delay between the assault and examination and the victim's statement that she did not know whether defendant had penetrated her.

The defendant raises two issues on appeal: (1) whether the trial justice erred in ruling that the complaining witness was competent to testify and (2) whether the evidence presented was sufficient to establish sexual penetration.


The defendant contends that the testimony of the victim, who was fourteen-years-old at trial, established that she did not understand the difference between telling the truth and a lie. The defendant therefore argues that she was not competent to testify. The prosecution, however, points to the victim's testimony, which revealed an ability to recall and recount her experiences, as well as her willingness to tell the truth. The prosecution argues that it is the totality of the record that properly determines the competency of a witness to testify.

The trustworthiness of the testimony is the standard for determining the competency of a child to testify. "[T]he traditional test is whether the witness has intelligence enough to make it worthwhile to hear him at all and whether he feels a duty to tell the truth." McCormick, Handbook of the Law of Evidence § 62 at 156 (3d ed. Cleary 1984).

In State v. Cabral, 122 R.I. 623, 410 A.2d 438 (1980), we delineated the criteria necessary to establish a witness's competency to testify. Id. at 628-29, 410 A.2d at 442. A child may not testify as a witness unless the child can demonstrate to the trial justice that he or she "can (1) observe, (2) recollect, (3) communicate (a capacity to understand questions and to furnish intelligent answers), and (4) appreciate the necessity of telling the truth." Id. at 629, 410 A.2d at 442. We further stated in In Re Gerald, R.I., 471 A.2d 219, 221 (1984), that the failure of a witness to state clearly the difference between a lie and the truth does not render the witness incompetent to testify.

In the case before us the trial justice concluded, after a full examination of the witness, that she was competent to testify. The trial justice reasoned that

"[he was] satisfied * * * that this witness, despite her shortcomings, has indicated that she is able to tell us what did or did not take place * * *. [W]ith regard to the distinction that she is asked to make between the truth and a lie * * *. I'm satisfied that in her own humble way she appreciates the necessity for telling the truth * * *."

In In re Gerald we stated that a trial justice must be afforded considerable latitude in determining the competency of a witness, because so much depends upon his observation of the witness. Id., 471 A.2d 219, 221 (1984). Here, the trial justice was satisfied and found that the child was competent to testify.

After a review of the entire record, we are of the opinion that the trial justice did not abuse the latitude afforded him. He correctly determined that the witness was competent to testify, consistent with aforementioned standards we set forth in Cabral and Gerald.


The defendant argues that the only evidence of penetration at trial derived from the testimony of the complaining witness, and her testimony was insufficient to establish the necessary element of sexual penetration beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution contends that the evidence establishes penetration.

In State v. Golden, R.I., 430 A.2d 433 (1981), this court stated that "penetration is an element of the crime of rape and that this element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at ---, 430 A.2d at 435. Penetration may be proven by circumstantial evidence. Id. at ---, 430 A.2d at 436.

The defendant is correct in stating that the only evidence of penetration adduced at trial derived from the testimony of the victim. The victim testified that the defendant put his penis inside her and that that hurt. When she was asked where penetration had...

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5 cases
  • State v. Ramos, 87-400-C
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • 2 February 1989
    ... ... State v ... Page 1063 ... Pettis, 488 A.2d 704, 707 (R.I.1985). There is no indication that Mary failed to comprehend forced sexual penetration. In light of the foregoing analysis, ... ...
  • State v. Horak
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • 14 January 2010
    ...witness to state clearly the difference between a lie and the truth does not render the witness incompetent to testify." State v. Pettis, 488 A.2d 704, 706 (R.I.1985) (involving testimony by a mentally impaired thirteen year old girl). We do not disagree; nevertheless, as Chief Justice Broc......
  • State v. Girouard
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • 6 July 1989
    ...the child understands the definitions of both and was there to tell the truth. In re Gerald, 471 A.2d at 220-21; see also State v. Pettis, 488 A.2d 704, 706 (R.I.1985). We now turn to an application of these principles to the present As to observation, Sally's testimony demonstrated her abi......
  • State v. Mills
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • 27 July 1992
    ...of Shane's responsiveness and desire to be truthful. Id. "[B]ecause so much depends upon his observation of the witness," State v. Pettis, 488 A.2d 704, 706 (R.I.1985), the trial court's conclusion that Shane was competent is entitled to great deference. The question is not whether we would......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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