By Cynthia Hoang-Duong and Fanelisa Leconte
WOODLAND, CA – While discussing the prosecution and defense’s motions during a pretrial motion hearing, Judge Samuel T. McAdam was hesitant to grant a motion by the prosecution—Deputy District Attorneys David Robbins and Stephanie Allen—requesting the testimony of their expert witness on an outdated theory.
The motion was in response to the motion filed by Deputy Public Defender Aram Davtyan to exclude the doctor’s testimony regarding Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS).
The accused has pleaded not guilty and denied all enhancements to his list of charges related to sexual child abuse.
Proposed by Roland C. Summit in 1983, CSAAS describes how child victims of sexual abuse respond to it by engaging in patterns of behaviors in five stages: secrecy, helplessness, entrapment and accommodation, delayed disclosure, and retraction.
The defense noted because the scientific community does not generally accept CSAAS, several states have prohibited testimony relying on CSAAS, including New Jersey, Tennessee and Florida, and it is also not recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association.
During the hearing, DDA Allen admitted that as recently as 2000, Summit acknowledged that the use of the term “syndrome” instead of “study” has caused his theory to be misapplied to diagnose certain behaviors in the social sciences and criminal cases.
DDA Allen responded that the purpose of CSAAS was to provide a general description of the class of child sexual assault victims and their common reactions to abuse. She noted the doctor will not meet the victim nor know the details of the case.
In defense of the prosecution’s use of CSAAS, the DDA explained that the ordinary juror does not understand child sexual abuse.
“They tend to view it from, what would I have done? What should have happened or things of that nature in terms of disclosure or reactions? Or things that the victim does or says that they find abnormal,” said the DDA, suggesting the purpose of the theory is to disabuse the jury of common misconceptions.
She also mentioned that CSAAS is not a scientific opinion, rather it is based on a victim’s credibility. She added that the prosecution will not ask the expert nor will he conclude whether the circumstances of the case constitute sexual abuse.
Regarding the judge’s question about studies that support the theory, the DDA explained CSAAS was written in 1983 and the expert witness has previously relied on it to testify in several other cases. Noting that the studies are ongoing, she cited the most recent as 2000.
Judge McAdam asked if the witness had any evidence in the last 23 years that would support the testimony.
However, the DDA cited case law from 2021 and 2023 that demonstrate CSAAS is relevant and admissible in the state of California.
While conceding to case law, the judge clarified California courts are narrowing the focus of CSAAS and it has been rejected by out-of-state authorities, adding, “Even in California, if we look at the recent authorities there, it’s narrowing its application. I think we need to be very careful here and really pinpoint it.”
Thus, he instructed the prosecution, requiring them to show how the theory narrowly applies to each victim.
He also expressed his concern the theory emanates from 1980s reasoning, and, based on his experience with juries, he stated the subject matter is well within the general knowledge of the community. CSAAS is not as relevant as it once was and, thus, is outdated, he said.
Based on these concerns, he suggested that the court may proceed with an 802 hearing to determine whether CSAAS is based on the current state of social science.
The prosecution accepted and stated they will research further about the science of the theory.
As a final point, DPD Davtyan added, “The danger I see here is the jury putting a puzzle together,” explaining this is because if an expert witness informs that these are some of the “symptoms” seen in victims of sexual abuse, then the jury will, “put that puzzle together and assume that it happened here because some of those things are also here.”
Deciding not to rule on the motion immediately, Judge McAdam took the request under submission.
However, he declared his beliefs that, although the California courts allow it and he is bound by their authority, he will likely only allow some form of its use narrowly and ensure that it is meaningful to the jury.
He wanted to confirm if the doctor is relying on studies from the last three or five years because he believes that the subject is common knowledge because “three-quarters of jurors” are or know individuals who are victims of abuse.
Upon this ruling, DDA Robbins asked the court to readdress this matter on June 20 because the doctor’s testimony is scheduled for June 22. Judge McAdam agreed.
Finally, comparing the subject to DUI cases, Judge McAdam estimated, “If you ask a jury venire, how many of you have had experience with a DUI or some family member, I’m not sure you’re going to get the number that high.”
He ended the discussion of the motion by conceding that CSAAS has been filtered through California case law and is admissible when done right. However, he said he is not inclined to make a new law, and is concerned about the scientific academics behind the theory.