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State of Idaho v. Robert D. Critchfield

August 27, 2012

STATE OF IDAHO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ROBERT D. CRITCHFIELD,
DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District, State of Idaho, Kootenai County. Hon. Charles W. Hosack, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge

2012 Opinion No. 44

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

Order granting motion for a new trial, affirmed.

The State of Idaho appeals from the district court's order granting defendant Robert D. Critchfield's motion for a new trial due to the erroneous exclusion of defense evidence at his initial trial. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In this case, involving nine separate children, the State tried Critchfield on two charges of lewd conduct with a minor child under sixteen, Idaho Code § 18-1508, and seven charges of sexual abuse of a child under the age of sixteen years, I.C. § 18-1506. Early in the investigation, the alleged victims, ranging in age from nine to fourteen at the time, were individually interviewed by five different law enforcement officers. Each of the victims later testified at trial.

The defense sought to present at trial the testimony of Dr. Gregory Wilson, an expert in law enforcement interview techniques. At a number of hearings on the State's objection to this testimony, the defense represented that Dr. Wilson would testify that he had reviewed recordings of the law enforcement interviews of the victims and that they were improperly conducted. According to the offer of proof, Dr. Wilson would opine that in order to obtain an accurate witness account of events, an interviewer should first ask open-ended questions seeking a witness's narrative and then go back and question on details for further clarification and to reveal consistencies or inconsistencies. The interviewers here, said Dr. Wilson, did not do this and, for example, sometimes made statements to an alleged victim suggesting that Critchfield had touched her in a specific way or committed a particular act and then asked whether this had occurred. The interviewing officers also sometimes informed a victim of other victims' allegations about what Critchfield had done. According to Dr. Wilson, the interview techniques employed were improperly suggestive and often called for a victim to agree with the interviewing officer, an authority figure, or with other victims, thereby possibly altering or tainting the perception and memory of a particular victim.

The State objected that Dr. Wilson should not be allowed to testify because the State had not introduced the content of the law enforcement interviews of the victims through recordings of the interviews or through testimony of the officers. In the absence of such evidence, the State contended, Dr. Wilson would necessarily be testifying to an opinion that the victims' trial testimony was not truthful, which is a category of opinion evidence that is inadmissible under Idaho law. The defense countered that it would not ask Dr. Wilson to give an ultimate opinion that any individual victim's testimony was tainted, contaminated, not truthful or not credible. The district court ultimately excluded Dr. Wilson's testimony. The court concluded that because neither recordings of the interviews nor testimony from the officers concerning the content of the interviews was placed into evidence by the State, Dr. Wilson's testimony was not relevant.

The jury found Critchfield guilty of one count of lewd conduct and one count of sexual abuse, returned not guilty verdicts on four counts of sexual abuse, and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the three remaining charges.

Critchfield thereafter moved for a new trial on the two counts on which he was found guilty, asserting that the district court had erred in excluding Dr. Wilson's testimony. The district court granted the motion, concluding that it should have allowed the expert to testify concerning proper interview techniques, the purposes behind those techniques, and how improper techniques were utilized in the victim interviews at issue. The court further concluded that its error was not harmless as there was a reasonable possibility that the exclusion of Dr. Wilson's testimony affected the outcome of the trial. The State appeals from the district court's order for a new trial, contending that Dr. Wilson's testimony was properly excluded at the initial trial.

II. STANDARDS

If evidence is relevant, it is admissible "except as otherwise provided by [the Idaho Rules of Evidence] or by other rules applicable in the courts of this state." Idaho Rule of Evidence 402. Evidence is relevant if it has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." I.R.E. 401. On appellate review, questions of relevance are reviewed de novo. State v. Watkins, 148 Idaho 418, 421, 224 P.3d 485, 488 (2009); State v. Raudebaugh, 124 Idaho 758, 764, 864 P.2d 596, 602 (1993). Opinion testimony regarding scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge, presented by a qualified expert witness, is generally admissible if it "will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." I.R.E. 702. A trial court has discretion in the admission or exclusion of expert testimony, and its decision will be reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Perry, 139 Idaho 520, 521, 81 P.3d 1230, 1231 (2003).

A court may grant a new trial if, during the course of the trial, the court has "erred in the decision of any question of law," I.C. § 19-2406(5), including evidentiary error. A trial court has wide discretion to determine whether to grant or to deny a criminal defendant's motion for a new trial. State v. Almaraz, ___ Idaho ___, ___, ___ P.3d ___, ___ (May 31, 2012) reh'g pending; State v. Bolen, 143 Idaho 437, 439, 146 P.3d 703, 705 (Ct. App. 2006). This Court reviews a denial of a motion for new trial for an abuse of discretion. State v. Stevens, 146 Idaho 139, 144, 191 P.3d 217, 222 (2008). That discretion generally is not abused unless a new trial is granted for a reason that is not delineated in Idaho Code § 19-2406 or the decision to grant or deny a new trial is contrary to the interest of justice. Bolen, 143 Idaho at 439, 146 P.3d at 705. Where a new trial is sought on an assertion of trial court error in admitting or excluding evidence, if error has occurred the issue becomes whether the incorrect evidentiary ruling was harmless or reversible error. State v. Roberts, 129 Idaho 194, 198, 923 P.2d 439, 443 (1996); State v. Howell, 137 Idaho 817, 820, 54 P.3d 460, 463 (Ct. ...


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