Tevlin v. People, 85SC236

Citation715 P.2d 338
Decision Date10 March 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85SC236,85SC236
PartiesTimothy TEVLIN, Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

David F. Vela, Public Defender, Judy Fried, Deputy Public Defender, Denver, for petitioner.

Duane Woodard, Atty. Gen., Charles B. Howe, Chief Deputy Atty. Gen., Richard H. Forman, Sol. Gen., John Milton Hutchins, 1st Asst. Atty. Gen., David R. Little, Asst. Atty. Gen., Denver, for respondent.

VOLLACK, Justice.

We granted certiorari to review the unpublished opinion of the court of appeals in People v. Tevlin, No. 83CA0783, decided April 18, 1985. The court of appeals affirmed the petitioner's conviction of the charges of second degree assault under section 18-3-203, 8 C.R.S. (1978), and child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury under section 18-6-401, 8 C.R.S. (1978). We affirm.

The issues are whether the trial court erred in allowing an expert in child abuse investigation to testify that a child witness was telling the truth, and whether any error in allowing an expert to testify to the truthfulness of another witness is harmless in this case.


The petitioner was charged with child abuse and assault of his six year old son. On October 4, 1982, the petitioner's fifteen year old stepson contacted the Larimer County Sheriff's office to report a case of possible child abuse. A deputy sheriff and a social worker with the Larimer County Department of Social Services responded to the family home. Upon arrival they observed the victim who was bruised around his eyes, on his arms, feet and had a solid bruise from the middle of his back to the middle of his upper leg. The victim also had a cut on his wrist and on his head, and later examination revealed blood in his urine. When asked how the injuries occurred, the victim initially responded that he had fallen. He then reported that the injuries were the result of being hit by the petitioner with a belt. Based upon the observed injuries and the statements of the victim, the authorities removed the child from the residence.

At trial, the victim testified he received the bruises when petitioner hit him with a belt and belt buckle. The social worker from the Larimer County Department of Social Services was qualified as an expert in the field of child abuse investigation. 1 Defense counsel objected to the prosecuting attorney inquiring into the area of whether the victim would be prone to fabricate the source of the injuries. The court required the witness to establish a foundation for such an opinion and overruled defense counsel's objections. The social worker stated he was able to formulate an opinion as to whether or not the victim gave truthful information based on the interviews he conducted with the victim and his stepbrother, through his subsequent contact with the boys in foster homes and through consulting with the foster parents. He then testified that he believed the victim was telling the truth about the fact that he was beaten by the petitioner with the belt and the injuries occurred in the days immediately prior to its being reported.

On cross-examination, the social worker admitted he did not personally observe the beatings, but his testimony was based on what the victim told him. He further stated he had a psychological evaluation performed regarding the victim, and he had consulted with the psychologists.

The court of appeals concluded that the error, if any, in receiving the testimony was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt in the record. The evidence included the victim's own testimony of what happened, the stepbrother's testimony, the investigating officer's observations and testimony, and the testimony of witnesses who had observed the defendant on other occasions striking the child in such a manner that he became bruised and bloody. The court of appeals found admission of the expert's testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

In his dissent, Judge Tursi argues credibility of a witness is solely within the province of a jury and is not the proper subject of testimony by an expert witness. He concludes the testimony went to the ultimate fact in issue of whether the petitioner had physically abused the victim and reasons that such improperly admitted evidence cannot be harmless. He would reverse the trial court and remand the matter for a new trial.


The opinion testimony of the expert witness in this case was brought out on direct examination and was stated in the form of an opinion by the expert as to a specific instance of truthfulness, rather than referring only to character for truthfulness or untruthfulness. 2 The defense inquired into prior inconsistent statements of the victim as to the identity of the person who inflicted his injuries because the victim had stated that both the mother and father had inflicted the injuries, but later said that only the father abused him. The record does not reflect that the defense directly attacked the victim's character for truthfulness.

Petitioner objects to the testimony of the social worker in this case because it related to an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact, 3 that is, who inflicted the injuries upon the victim. The petitioner maintains the testimony was improper because determining the truthfulness of the victim's testimony did not require specialized knowledge. 4 The issue of whether or not the victim was telling the truth could be properly resolved by the jury, the petitioner contends, and to allow an expert to offer an opinion on that issue invaded the province of the jury. 5

We conclude that the trial court erred in allowing the testimony of the expert witness stating the victim was telling the truth when he related his version of the incidents of abuse. The expert's opinion failed to refer to the witness' general character for truthfulness and instead went to the witness' truthfulness on a specific occasion. Moreover, there is insufficient evidence that the victim's character for truthfulness had been directly attacked by the defense to allow evidence in direct examination that the victim was telling the truth. Since requirements for introducing such evidence were not met in this case, the expert's opinion was not properly admissible under CRE 608. People v. Koon, 713 P.2d 410 (Colo.App.1985).


In the Koon case, the court of appeals concluded that a social worker's testimony as to the truthfulness of a victim's allegations against defendant overstepped the bounds of admissible character evidence. Although the defendant in Koon attacked the victim's character for truthfulness in his cross-examination, CRE 608(a) rendered inadmissible the expert's testimony that he thought the boy was telling the truth because it referred to a specific occasion of truthfulness. The court determined that the improperly admitted evidence was relied upon in the findings of fact made by the trial court and given significant weight. The court of appeals concluded that inasmuch as the case against the defendant was tenuous at best, the impermissible opinion testimony of the social worker expert could have affected the outcome of the trial. Therefore, the admission of such evidence was reversible error.

A trial court's evidentiary ruling will not be reversed where the error is harmless. Honey v. People, 713 P.2d 1300 (Colo.1986); Callis v. People, 692 P.2d 1045 (Colo.1984); People v. Gallegos, 644 P.2d 920 (Colo.1982); People v. Taylor, 197 Colo. 161, 591 P.2d 1017 (1979). Crim.P. 52(a) provides that any error, defect, irregularity or variance which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded. We noted in the Taylor case that a perfect trial is an impossibility and minor mistakes will inevitably occur. Under the harmless error rule, an error in a criminal trial will be disregarded if there is not a reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the defendant's conviction. Taylor, 197 Colo. at 164, 591 P.2d at 1019. The proper inquiry in determining a harmless error question is whether the error substantially influenced the verdict or affected the fairness of the trial proceedings. People v. Carlson, 712 P.2d 1018 (Colo.1986); Callis, 692 P.2d 1045. 6

In this case, the investigating deputy sheriff testified the victim told him that petitioner hit the victim with the belt. The examining physician testified that the bruises appeared to be two to four days old and the cuts were a little over twenty-four hours old. The victim in this case testified at the trial that the petitioner inflicted his injuries. Evidence of similar transactions was admitted in the case and witnesses testified that in May of 1979, they witnessed the petitioner striking the victim at a grocery store. Evidence revealed the victim had been kicked and hit in the head by the defendant.

The petitioner's version of how the victim received the injuries was that the victim inflicted the injuries upon himself with a paddle. Petitioner and his wife explained some cuts around the boy's face as a result of having fallen in the bathtub. The victim's mother testified that he was possessed by the devil and communicated with the devil. The other children in the home testified that the bruises did not exist on Saturday or Sunday, prior to the investigation of the matter on Monday. Photographs of the victim revealed extensive bruising on Monday.

In light of the overwhelming evidence of guilt produced in this case, we conclude that the error in admitting this testimony was harmless. Gallegos, 644 P.2d 920; People v. Ortega, 672 P.2d 215 (Colo.App.1983). The jury was properly instructed as to how to evaluate expert testimony and also received the general credibility instruction on the testimony of witnesses. 7 The jury was afforded the opportunity to judge the credibility of the victim on the witness stand, and defense counsel was afforded the opportunity to...

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