New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the reversal of several child sex abuse convictions in which experts testified about a now-disputed theory, in a ruling that could affect dozens of other similar cases.
The justices concluded 7-0 that a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling restricting the use of a theory known as child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome can be applied retroactively to other cases currently being appealed.
The court reversed three of the four convictions on appeal Wednesday; in the fourth, they ruled the admission of the expert testimony didn’t deny the defendant a fair trial, and let his conviction stand.
Last year, an appeals court had thrown out the convictions in all four cases. At that time, the state had estimated as many as 40 other cases on appeal could be affected by the 2018 ruling if it was applied retroactively.
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Child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, a theory developed in the 1980s, seeks to explain behaviors among alleged victims, including feelings of helplessness, keeping the abuse secret and recanting allegations about abuse after they’re made.
The Supreme Court in 2018 concluded that not all aspects of the theory are well-defined or scientifically proven, and that expert testimony about those aspects should not be introduced as evidence. The court wrote that prosecutors could still present expert testimony on delayed disclosure of abuse, which it considered an accepted theory, providing a jury was given specific instructions about the testimony.
In arguments before the court in March, the state argued that the 2018 ruling should only apply to future cases because it amounted to a “seismic” shift in the law.
While noting that its earlier ruling “represents a fundamental and unexpected shift in the law,” the court wrote Wednesday that ensuring proceedings are fair to both the accused and the victim guided its decision.
“We are mindful of and find compelling the survivors’ interests here, but we cannot place their well-founded concerns about having to testify again above a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” the justices wrote.
The state attorney general's office declined comment on the ruling Wednesday.