Iowa Supreme Court orders review of child accuser's mental health records
January 24, 2020—The Iowa Supreme Court today decided State v. Richard Leedom, a guilty jury verdict for sex abuse where defendant argued he should have had access to the minor female witness's mental health records during trial.
In Leedom, a teenage girl alleged that her maternal grandfather repeatedly sexually abused her and that her mother merely urged her to conceal it. According to the Iowa Supreme Court opinion detailing the girl's in-court testimony, she wanted to live with her father and admittedly lied about other unrelated matters to advantage her father's custody battle. To corroborate her abuse allegation, however, the girl noted that she had told her therapist when it was happening. Notably, her therapist made no known mandatory report regarding the allegation, required under Iowa law.
Eager to compare the girl's testimony to her therapist's records, the defendant argued the Iowa and federal constitutions required the disclosure of the girl's mental health records to him for his defense and the girl's impeachment at trial. The State argued it was not required for the girl's therapist to make a mandatory report, citing to a pretrial hearing expert who testified that abuse reporting is mandatory under age 12 but discretionary thereafter. A competing expert for the defense refuted that line of reasoning.
A state law passed after a controversial court case now allows for the judge to review the sought-after mental health records alone in chambers upon a showing that they will likely be “exculpatory,” or, tend to exonerate the defendant.
In the Leedom case, the district court flatly denied an in camera, or, judge-only, review of the records to determine if they should be disclosed to the Defendant.
The Iowa Supreme Court conditionally reversed, stating that the district court should have conducted such a private review before deciding to seal or disclose the records to the parties.
Justice Waterman, writing for the court, noted:
“We are satisfied that the absence of any reported abuse in . . . therapy notes for [the girl] would be exculpatory within the meaning of Iowa Code section 622.10(4)(a), as would notes of [the girl
's] descriptions of abuse materially inconsistent with her testimony. Such records would be useful in cross-examining [her] and helpful to the jury in weighing her testimony.”
The Court admonished courts for refusing to conduct in camera reviews in close cases, noting “[t]his case is the third time we have reversed rulings that denied in camera inspections and remanded with instructions to conduct such reviews.”
However, the Court noted that if the district court decided after in camera inspection that no disclosure should occur, the Supreme Court stated it was now satisfied the conviction following jury guilty verdicts should remain intact, as it held that other unrelated arguments defendant posed on direct appeal lacked merit.
David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Leedom case.
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