Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not allow courtroom testimony from experts who could shed light on a victim’s behavior after sexual assault.
Is that significant?
Yes, it’s extremely significant, because it means that jurors don’t receive the information they need to make informed decisions in sexual assault cases. As a result, victims are at a disadvantage in Pennsylvania courtrooms.
That’s why the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) supports House Bill 1264, which would allow experts to take the witness stand to answer questions about a victim’s behavior in a sexual assault case.
This bill passed in the State House in Pennsylvania in June 2011 by a 197-0 margin, but Senator Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has yet to move it to the Senate floor. The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D-Philadelphia) and co-sponsored by Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery).
Why is this bill so important?
Because studies have found that a lack of clarity around specific details of assault is common among survivors of trauma, including cases of sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Gaps in memory can be attributed to the way the brain processes a traumatic event.
Trauma affects both body and mind, and it permanently changes a person’s brain chemistry. Traumatic memories are different from everyday memories. Traumatic memories are stored in disjointed fragments in a separate part of the brain from everyday memories. They also are more sensory in nature, which means that a victim may not remember details of the crime in the order they happened, but he or she will forever have memories of the sounds, smells, touches related to the assault.
Because traumatic memories are so different, so too are the ways a victim may remember or react to a crime. That means that when a jury hears that a victim was sexually assaulted as a child but didn’t come forward for decades, the jury also should hear factual information about how victims respond to trauma.
Expert witness testimony also helps jurors better understand a victim’s psychological history. Defense attorneys often use evidence of psychological evaluations in a victim’s past to argue that the victim is mentally unstable. Many times, however, the evaluations and treatment for mental-health concerns are a direct result of the sexual and/or mental abuse the victim endured. That is especially true when the victim is a child and the violations were committed by a trusted authority figure.
Have you read enough to be unnerved or angry about the unfair disadvantage that trauma victims face in Pennsylvania? Then please call Senator Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today and ask him to move this bill to the Senate floor for a vote. Make your voice heard by calling his Harrisburg office at (717) 787-6599
We owe it to prosecutors and victims alike to pass this legislation to keep our communities safe and to keep sex offenders off our streets.
Facts about How Trauma Impacts Victims
Most victims delay reporting.
Many victims act like nothing happened. That’s because they’re trying to normalize their experience as something not traumatic.
When victims disclose the abuse, it is common that their recollection is not linear and it takes them time to put the pieces of their experience together.
Early victim accounts often do not include all pieces of information. They omit parts of their story to protect themselves.
The victim usually knows the offender well, so often the victim has repeat contact with the assailant — even after an assault.
“Freezing,” rather than having a “fight or flight” response, is the most-common response to sexual assault. This is why most victims are not able to fight, struggle, call for help, or fend off the assailant.