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AZ Supreme Court rules in expert witness case

JJuries are entitled to hear from an expert witness on a particular type of crime even if that person knows nothing about the specific victims in the case, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled May 29.

In a unanimous decision, the justices rebuffed efforts by Martin Salazar-Mercado to overturn his convictions on multiple counts of child abuse. It also leaves intact his sentences, including a life term with no possibility of parole for at least 35 years.

But the decision has more far-reaching implications.

It spells out for the first time in Arizona that expert witnesses can provide “cold’’ testimony to educate jurors about general principles without considering the particular facts of the case. And that decision will give more latitude to judges to allow expert testimony in future criminal cases.

Salazar-Mercado was indicted in Pima County in 2011 on multiple charges of child molestation for abusing his cousin’s daughter and step-son.

At trial, his attorney sought to block testimony from Wendy Dutton, a forensic interviewer, about what is known as Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.

Prosecutors sought that information to explain the behavior of the children, which includes delayed reporting of the abuse to a relative, trouble pinpointing when events occurred, and even one victim changing her version of events between the time of reporting and trial.

Judge Ann Scott Timmer, writing for the court, said the testimony was proper, even though Dutton had not been involved with the children.

“Expert testimony about general behavior patterns of child sexual abuse victims may help the jury understand the evidence,’’ she wrote. And in this case, the judge said, Dutton’s testimony “might have helped the jury to understand possible reasons for the delayed and inconsistent reporting in this case.’’

Timmer said, though, there are limits on this kind of testimony.

For example, she said testimony must be limited to “general principles of social or behavioral science.’’ More to the point, the expert cannot testify about “the accuracy, reliability or credibility of a particular witness in the case being tried.’’

And Timmer said the ruling should not be taken as a blanket endorsement that evidence of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome is always admissible. She said it is up to a trial judge to exercise a “gatekeeping role’’ in deciding whether the testimony meets the legal standards for being admissible.

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