Forensic Testimony About Rape Trauma Syndrome

Should forensic testimony about “rape trauma syndrome” be excluded in civil suits where a rape victim is seeking damages for psychological harm? Based on an opinion by the Washington Court of Appeals in 2010, it appears the answer is this: It depends on the purpose of the testimony.

The opinion was issued in the case of Carlton v. Vancouver Care. In this case, it was undisputed that a woman suffering from severe dementia had been raped by an attendant while residing in a “memory care” facility operated by the defendant Vancouver Care, LLC. She died 13 months later. Her estate then sued the care facility for damages. The central issue was whether and to what extent Ms. Carlton had suffered psychological harm as a result of the rape.

Ms. Carlton had not been in a position to be interviewed or tested after the rape to assess her damages. She “had limited language skills, could not carry on a conversation, and could make only one or two word responses to questions.” The court noted that she “knew her name but was unaware of place or time.”

The estate retained two forensic experts to describe the probable effects of a rape on the victim, and to show that the available data (e.g., Ms. Carlton’s elevated vital signs) reflected emotional impacts of the rape. Both experts concluded she had been traumatized. One expert, Dr. Ann Burgess, supported her conclusion by citing the “rape trauma syndrome,”  as well as the concept of “implicit memory.”

The defendant Vancouver Care argued that neither “rape trauma syndrome” nor the concept of “implicit memory” met the Frye standard. The defendant also pointed out that the Washington Supreme Court (in State v. Black, 1987) had previously ruled that testimony about “rape trauma syndrome” was inadmissible.

The trial judge agreed with Vancouver Care, and ruled that testimony about rape trauma syndrome and “implicit memory” would not be allowed at the trial.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge, pointing out that the Washington Supreme Court had not rejected the “rape trauma syndrome” per se. Rather, the Court in State v. Black had ruled only that “rape trauma syndrome” had not been established as a “scientifically reliable means of proving a rape occurred.” Therefore, testimony about “rape trauma syndrome” was not permitted when the defendant denies having committed a rape.

As noted by the Court of Appeals, the defendant in the case at hand did not deny that Ms. Carlton had been raped. Hence, the purpose of testimony about “rape trauma syndrome” was not to prove she had been raped, but instead was “to help explain the trauma process and the manner in which a victim reacts to rape.” The court also noted that the concept of “implicit memory” (along with the related concept of “conditioned fear response”) was generally accepted, thus leaving only one question, namely, whether testimony about these subjects would assist the jury as per Evidence Rule 702. Considering the facts of this case, the court found that such testimony would be of assistance, and should be allowed.

The Court of Appeals noted that appellate courts in several other states have reached the same conclusion that it did; i.e., “rape trauma syndrome” testimony will be of assistance to the jury and should be admitted, provided it is offered only to explain the rape victim’s reaction to the assault, and not to prove that rape occurred.


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