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Name: People v. Wilson
Case #: A150500
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 4
Opinion Date: 03/27/2019
Summary

Trial court abused its discretion in admitting the testimony of a prosecution expert regarding studies that show only a very small percentage of allegations of child sexual abuse are false. Wilson was convicted of multiple sexual abuse charges involving a minor. At trial, a prosecution expert witness testified about CSAAS and research on false allegations of child sexual abuse, stating that, although the research was limited, false allegations occur “very infrequently or rarely,” most often during child custody disputes. He referred to a “classic” Canadian study that found allegations were later determined to be false in about 4% of cases. Wilson appealed, arguing this numerical evidence improperly amounted to testimony that 96% (or between 94% and 99%) of children accusing a person of child molestation were telling the truth, and that this invaded the province of the jury in assessing a witness’s credibility. Held: Affirmed. No California case has directly addressed the issue Wilson raised. However, the Court of Appeal cited numerous cases in other jurisdictions that concluded similar numerical evidence was inadmissible. The court found the reasoning of these cases compelling. It is the responsibility of the jury to draw the ultimate inferences from the evidence, including judging witness credibility. Here, the expert’s testimony had the effect of telling the jury there was at least a 94% chance that any given child who claimed to have been sexually abused was telling the truth. The practical result was to suggest to the jury that there was an overwhelming likelihood the complainant’s testimony was truthful. In so doing, this testimony invaded the province of the jury. Even assuming that any study can accurately capture the prevalence of false accusations, it tells the jury nothing about whether this particular allegation in this case is false. The jury must evaluate the complainant’s testimony together with all the other evidence, and it should do so without statistical evidence placing a thumb on the scale of guilt. The statistical evidence was not relevant.

The admission of the statistical evidence was not prejudicial. The judgment must be reversed only if it is reasonably probable the defendant would have reached a more favorable result in the absence of the error. (People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, 836.) Under the Watson standard, the court concluded there was no prejudice. The expert’s testimony on the numerical evidence was brief and he acknowledged that it was difficult to determine whether an allegation was false. Wilson was able to rebut the evidence through his own expert witness, who testified that the 4% number reflected only the cases in which there was positive proof a child’s allegation was false, and who also gave further testimony regarding false memories in young children and unreliable interview methods. The complainants also testified extensively and the jurors could assess their credibility. The prosecution did not reference the statistical evidence in its closing arguments. There is no reasonable probability that Wilson would have achieved a more favorable result in the absence of the challenged testimony.

Where a defendant is charged with both specific lewd acts against a minor, and continuous sexual abuse of the same minor for the same period of time, the counts should be charged in the alternative and dual convictions are improper. The jury found Wilson guilty in counts 1 through 12 of twelve counts of lewd acts against a child (Pen. Code, § 288, subd. (b)(1)), and in count 13 of one count of continuous sexual abuse of the same child (Pen. Code, § 288.5, subd. (a)). The trial court sentenced the defendant to 104 years on the twelve counts of lewd acts against a child, and dismissed the one count of continuous sexual abuse. Wilson argued that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that count 13 was an alternative count, and that the trial court should have sentenced him only on count 13. Section 288.5, subdivision (c) provides that “[n]o other act of . . . lewd and lascivious acts, as defined in Section 288, involving the same victim may be charged in the same proceeding with a charge under this section unless the other charged offense occurred outside the time period charged under this section or the other offense is charged in the alternative.” The Attorney General conceded that counts 1 through 12 and count 13 should have been charged in the alternative and that dual convictions were improper. However, the error was harmless. Where a defendant is erroneously convicted, “either the continuous abuse conviction or the convictions on the specific offenses must be vacated.” (People v. Johnson (2002) 28 Cal.4th 240, 245, 248.) In deciding which convictions to vacate, the court should leave in place the alternative offenses that are “most commensurate with his culpability.” (People v. Torres (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1059.) Here, the Court of Appeal determined there was no likelihood the jury would not have convicted Wilson of counts 1 through 12 if properly instructed. Moreover, the trial court demonstrated that the twelve counts were most commensurate with defendant’s culpability when it explained its reasons for choosing the terms, including the pattern of continuing offenses, the abuse of trust, and the use of violence.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A150500.PDF