The Utah Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of sexually abusing his daughter, ruling that the original judge allowed improper testimony from experts.
In a 4-1 decision released Thursday, the justices said Phillip Rimmasch was convicted without any physical evidence and without any scientific basis.A lower court convicted Rimmasch on the basis of expert witnesses who supported his daughter's testimony during the trial. The experts testified that the girl fit the typical psychological profile of a victim of child sexual abuse and that they believed she was telling the truth.
Rimmasch was convicted of forcible sexual abuse, rape, forcible sodomy and incest and was placed on probation for 18 months and ordered to undergo psychological treatment. He was accused of abusing his daughter from the time she was 7 until she was 13 or 14.
The Supreme Court said too much weight was given to the apparently groundless testimony of experts.
"Throughout the testimony of these key experts, which consumed almost two-thirds of the trial, little foundation was offered or demanded by the court as to the scientific basis for the profile of the typical sexually abused child, the ability of the profile to sort the abused from the nonabused with any degree of accuracy, or the ability of the experts to judge whether the daughter was telling the truth during the interviews," wrote Justice Michael Zimmerman.
Attorney Craig S. Cook, who handled Rimmasch's appeal, said: "This was like a human lie detector. No other case allows one witness to comment on the reliability of another. That's what a jury is for."
Cook also said Judge James Sawaya's allowance of the experts' testimony about the so-called "child-abuse syndrome" had created a "Catch 22" for the defense. When attorney John O'Connell, who represented Rimmasch at trial, put on evidence that the girl had a history of lying and other problems, "the more you showed how bad she was, the prosecutor would come and say, `Yes, these are things that an abused child does,"' Cook said.
And evidence of Rimmasch's character was rebutted the same way, he said. "The more you showed he was an upstanding citizen, never in trouble, had praise from his neighbors, they'd say, `Yeah, that's the profile of a typical child abuser."'
Cook said the Supreme Court's ruling sets important precedents.
"This is the first opinion dealing with the problem of what these psychologists can do." He said many previous child-abuse trials have involved similar testimony. "I don't know how many trials are now in jeopardy of being overturned because of this kind of evidence. It might be quite a few of them."
In reversing the conviction and ordering a new trial, Zimmerman said he was aware that the public is particularly concerned with child sexual abuse cases.
"However, the fact that child sexual abuse has emerged as a critical problem about which the public is seriously concerned does not mean all legal rules that may constitute obstacles to increasing the conviction and incarceration rates of those accused of such crimes . . . can properly be brushed aside," he wrote.
Attorney Leslie A. Lewis, who prosecuted the case, said she is disappointed. "Anytime a case you prosecute is overturned, you feel that. But I haven't yet read the court's ruling, so I can't articulate any feelings about the reasoning of the court."
Lewis is now in private practice.
Chief Justice Gordon Hall was the lone dissenter in the case, writing a brief, three-paragraph opinion saying the lower court's errors did not affect the fairness of the trial.
"The case was tried to the court, sitting without a jury, and the evidence of the 17-year-old victim, standing alone, is sufficient to meet the state's burden of proof," he wrote.