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Iowa appeals court: forensic interviewer may testify as expert without interviewing

woman and a doctor
Forensic interviewers have gained significant status in Iowa appellate decision making. Such an expert may testify even if they did not directly interview an alleged victim.

In State v. Douglas Lindaman, decided this month, the Iowa Court of Appeals has held that a district court did not abuse its discretion allowing a forensic interviewer to testify in a criminal case without ever having interviewed the alleged minor witness. Forensic interviewers generally only testify if they have themselves interviewed the minor witness. A theory held by prosecutorial advocates is that such professional interviewers preserve an accusation by conducting a single, controlled interview of a minor witness, usually in a hospital. The Court found prosecutors can call such a witness to offer context even when they have not themselves conducted a forensic interview in the case.

In Lindaman, the defendant represented himself.

A high school student confided in a coach that the defendant assaulted him. The State filed a criminal charge against the defendant. This appeal relates to Defendant’s third jury trial for the offense—after his first appeal resulted in a new trial and his second trial ended in a mistrial. He challenged jury selection, the certification and testimony of a hospital worker as an expert witness, typographical errors in his indictment, and credit for time he has already spent behind bars. The court rejected all of the defendant’s arguments.

Regarding jury selection, defendant appealed the trial court judge’s denial of strikes for cause. Strikes of potential jurors “for cause” are removed by the judge if she finds that they could not under any circumstances be fair and impartial. The Court of Appeals recited the history of jury selection in this case, noting the trial court removed four potential jurors for cause. However, the court denied to defendant six more challenges. The Court of Appeals found that the defendant’s tactics during jury selection amounted to “sandbagging,” or, a deliberate attempt to build mistakes regarding such denials into the appeal later. It ruled against him on jury selection issues.

Regarding the expert witness, the Court recounted the rule on expert testimony, which allows the district court to admit expert testimony if it can “assist” the jury. The rule allows such a witness to testify “if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” However, expert witnesses may not “vouch” for another witness in a case. For example, a forensic interviewer may not testify that t she believes the alleged victim is telling the truth. That crosses the line.

Here, the defendant argued that the purported expert’s testimony was “misleading and confusing to the jurors” because the witness was “allowed to lend credibility to the State’s witnesses’ testimony,” especially [the alleged victim], even though [the purported expert] had not interviewed anyone associated with the case.”

The State argued that the forensic interviewer’s expert testimony was required, even though she had no involvement in the case, because laypeople in the jury pool would erroneously conclude late reporting is inconsistent with telling the truth. The forensic interviewer, who had a master’s degree in counseling and interviews minor victims for a living, could offer context on that issue, the State reasoned.

The Court of Appeals concluded the forensic interviewer testified only generally that victims delay reporting because they fear shame, retribution, or negative consequences, without directly or indirectly commenting on grooming or late reporting. It therefore rejected the defendant's arguments on this point.

The Court also addressed various other challenges in defendant’s appeal. It found a typographical error in an indictment—an incorrect year for the alleged crime—was not “fatal” to the prosecution as long as the offense was outside the statute of limitations. It was not in this case. It also rejected the defendant’s claims about the violation of state law in calculation of his sentence and credit for time served.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Lindaman case. Additional appeals may follow in this case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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