False Science in Sexual Conduct Prosecution

Sexual conduct is a complicated criminal matter. The stakes are high. Illegal sexual behavior cases often carry a harsh punishment of many years in prison. There is the possibility of having to register in the sexual offender registry, which has serious consequences for the offender’s entire life. Most of the time, sexual offenses occur without witnesses and do not occur in public areas. Many accusations are made without witnesses. Evidence presented in the trial often depend on analysis of tissue samples, more or less scientific measurement like hair and fiber comparison or handwriting analysis, as well as the word of the defendant and the alleged victim.

Conviction in sexual cases often depends on the testimony of the victim or a minor child in support of the victim. These convictions may be relatively easy to get in sexual cases in front of a sympathetic jury, because even being accused of a sex crime has such a strong popular stigma. The horror of the crime may be enough to sway even a judge on the word of a sympathetic victim, even if very little real evidence is presented in court.

Statistics show that there may be as one in four of all reported sexual attacks that will be proven false on real investigation. Defendants in sex crime cases can often be convinced to accept a plea bargain to avoid the high risk of a severe sentence, even with little real evidence against them. The plea bargain may reduce or eliminate jail time, but the consequences of even the reduced sentence can be disastrous in the life of any convicted person.

The first line of evidence for the defense in a sexual conduct case is the profession of innocence. The defendant may admit to the physical acts in the case, but disavow the claim that is was sexual assault because the act was consensual. Defendants can present alibies that they were not present at the alleged crime scene, and support the alibi with documents like hotel receipts, or travel documents. Defendants may claim that they were misidentified by the victim.

Because of the special nature of prosecution in sexual conduct cases, often the lack of witnesses, the way juries and judges view sexual crimes and, often, the vagueness of the nature of evidence, false science and pseudoscientific theories are often a factor in sexual conduct trials.  False memories elicited in the testimony of witnesses and attempts to “recover memory” using methods like hypnosis have resulted in miscarriage of justice in many sexual abuse cases, according to a recent book published by the British False Memory Society.

Many hundreds of people are convinced by (perhaps) well-meaning therapists that their psychological problems are due to repressed memories of sexual abuse. Those so convinced go in search of likely perpetrators and use their recovered memories as evidence in court. Juries and those in the criminal justice system may rely on “common sense” in considering issues relating to memory. The British False Memory Society has filed several thousand case histories, of which 672 are known to have involved legal authorities. Studies by experimental psychologists have proven beyond doubt that false memories can be readily produced in susceptible individuals.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, based in Philadelphia, was founded in 1992 by a distinguished panel of psychologists.

“[to]…study the problem of families that were being shattered when adult children suddenly claimed to have recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Across the country, parents had been reporting that they received phone calls and letters accusing them of committing horrifying acts that allegedly had happened decades earlier.”

Cases arising from these accusations resulted in law suits as well as criminal trials. The legal actions and the publicity around them were devastating in the lives of the accused. A detailed account of a sexual abuse case that resulted in a multi-year convictions of Samantha and Julie Werkheiser is described by Pressconnects.com (2017).

Alex DeMarco has been a Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyer for 10 years, defending people accused of offenses including traffic offenses, DWI, assault, theft, and even criminal sexual conduct or murder. Please contact us to learn more.