People in Interest of J.R.
2021 COA 81. No. 17CA2076. Juvenile Delinquency—Sexual Assault on a Child—Indecent Exposure—Expert Opinion—Credibility—Prosecutorial Misconduct.
June 10, 2021
A.M. and E.P. reported multiple instances of sexual abuse by J.R. A jury found J.R. guilty of six counts of sexual assault on a child, two counts of indecent exposure, and six aggravated juvenile offender sentence enhancers.
On appeal, J.R. contended that the juvenile court erred by admitting a medical doctor’s testimony that she had diagnosed E.P. with sexual abuse based solely on E.P.’s allegations. Here, the doctor’s testimony impermissibly bolstered E.P.’s credibility and usurped the jury’s role as fact finder by resolving one of the ultimate legal issues in the case—whether E.P. had been sexually abused. Accordingly, the juvenile court erred by admitting the testimony. But while the error was obvious, given the context of the entire trial at which 19 witnesses testified, it was not so substantial as to cast serious doubt on the verdict’s reliability. Therefore, the erroneous admission of the challenged testimony did not amount to plain error.
J.R. also argued that the prosecutor committed reversible misconduct by appealing to the jurors’ emotions and sympathy and expressing personal opinions. Here, the prosecutor was entitled to counter the defense’s attack on the credibility of the child victims, and his reference to the “stigma” of sexual assault and the “shame and embarrassment” a child victim might feel, as well as his characterization of sexual assault as a “heinous crime,” were attempts to explain why the victims were unlikely to have fabricated the allegations. And the prosecutor’s request that the jurors “vindicate” the victims by holding J.R. accountable was an inartful way of asking the jury to find J.R. guilty, so any error in allowing it was harmless. Further, the prosecutor’s statements about the victims’ credibility were permissible, and his additional challenged statements did not denigrate the defense or lower the burden of proof. Accordingly, the prosecutor did not engage in misconduct.
The judgment was affirmed.