Significant questions in child sexual abuse conviction

July 30, 2009Duke Law News

Case Profile:
It is commonly believed that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many areas in the United States, including the state of North Carolina, suffered under a period of “near-hysteria,” resulting in false accusations of child sexual abuse and mistaken prosecutions. In that environment, well-intentioned social workers attempting to understand a specific child’s misbehavior would sometimes use a now-discredited interviewing technique involving anatomically correct dolls. That technique was used in this case, and when the child played with the dolls in a suggestive way, naming one his stepfather and the other himself, the wheels were set in motion, and the stepfather was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse and sentenced to life in prison a little more than one year later.

The boy recanted when he was a pre-teen, and the court granted a hearing on that new evidence. After the hearing, though, the court ruled against the stepfather, in part because the child’s recantation was presented without much supporting evidence. Struggling with the decision, the court itself ordered a psychological assessment of the child to help determine whether he was telling the truth at the hearing or earlier at the trial. Although the psychologist concluded that the teen appeared to be testifying truthfully and may well have fabricated the earlier testimony, the court ruled against the stepfather, perhaps relying in part on the medical testimony presented at trial and repeated at the hearing. That testimony has also now been discredited, but it stood essentially unchallenged at the hearing.

The child is now in his mid-20s and continues to recant his original testimony. He explains that he was only seven and a half when he testified at trial, and, at that time of his life, he was easily influenced by others. He said he recanted as soon as he had the courage to do so and very much wants to see that justice is finally done in the case. He said his stepfather is an “innocent man.”