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Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies When Forensic Interviews of Child Complaining Witnesses Are Admissible

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Iowa clarified when forensic interviews of child complaining witnesses may be admitted into evidence at trial.

Jake Skahill was tried on sexual offenses alleged to have been committed against his seven-year-old daughter “K.W.” She testified at trial that while sitting on Skahill’s lap, he showed her his penis; asked K.W. to “wiggle it”; and “touched K.W. on her privates between her legs.” K.W. testified that it was painful and that Skahill told K.W. it was “their secret.”

Shortly afterward, K.W. recounted the details of the alleged abuse to her mother. The next day, K.W. was taken to St. Luke’s Child Protection Center (“CPC”) for a physical exam and a forensic interview. After Dr. Regina Butteris completed the physical exam, Roseann Van Cura conducted a video-recorded forensic interview.

Van Cura began by building a rapport with K.W. and gathered some background information regarding K.W.’s family. Van Cura then told K.W. that she had two rules: (1) K.W. could say anything without getting into trouble and (2) it was important to tell the truth.

At this point, the interview turned to the sexual abuse. Substantively, K.W.’s account of the abuse was consistent with her trial testimony.
About three months later after the initial interview, Van Cura interviewed K.W. again at the request of the prosecutor. A police officer observed this interview, and K.W. was informed the officer was listening in another room. K.W.’s account of the abuse remained essentially the same.

At trial, Van Cura testified that she was a supervisor of the CPC and a forensic interviewer. When describing her role as a forensic interviewer, Van Cura testified, “I have specialized training in talking with children about matters that may be presented to the court.” She testified she had a master’s degree in counseling and had attended a significant number of workshops, conferences, webinars, and training focused on forensic interviewing.

Over Skahill’s objection, the video recordings of Van Cura’s forensic interviews of K.W. were played to the jury. During closing arguments, the prosecutor replayed about a dozen excerpts from the videos. The jury convicted Skahill on all counts, and he appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the CPC interview videos were inadmissible hearsay. The court of appeals (“COA”) affirmed, and the Iowa Supreme Court granted Skahill further review.

The Court addressed the State’s arguments that the videos were admissible under the medical diagnosis exception of Iowa Rule of Evidence (“IRE”) 5.803(4) and the residual exception of IRE 5.807 to the rule against hearsay.

The medical diagnosis exception allows for admission of a hearsay statement that “(A) is made for—and is reasonably pertinent to—medical diagnosis or treatment; and (B) describes medical history, past or present symptoms or sensations, or the inception or general cause of symptoms or sensations.” IRE 5.803(4). A child-declarant’s “motive in making the statement must be consistent with the purposes of promoting treatment” and “the content of the statement must be such as is reasonably relied on by a physician in treatment and diagnosis.” State v. Tracy, 482 N.W.2d 675 (Iowa 1992). While a statement for medical diagnosis or treatment is normally made to someone who is qualified to provide a diagnosis or treatment, a hearsay declarant can conceivably make a statement for the purpose of medical diagnosis to anyone, even a family member. State v. Long, 628 N.W.2d 440 (Iowa 2001). The primary focus is on the declarant’s motive for making the statement. Id.

But the Court stated that when a statement is made to nonmedical personnel, that tends to suggest it was not made for the purpose of medical diagnosis.

In State v. Hildreth, 582 N.W.2d 167 (Iowa 1998), the court determined that statements made to a social worker fell under the medical diagnosis exception because social workers were “qualified by training and experience to provide diagnosis and treatment” and had “extensive training and experience in the field of child sexual abuse.” But in the instant case, Van Cura’s testimony revealed she primarily viewed her role as an investigator, not a medical professional or therapist, according to the Court. Although she had extensive training and experience as an investigator, she lacked extensive training or experience in medicine or therapy. And the Court noted that her questions to K.W. revealed she was attempting to uncover facts, not attempting to diagnose or treat.

The unavailability of the medical diagnosis exception was even clearer with respect to the second CPC interview, the Court stated. The second interview was arranged by the prosecutor with law enforcement present; it was clearly made for an investigator, rather than medical or treatment, purpose. The Court concluded that neither CPC interview was admissible under the medical diagnosis exception.

The Court then turned to the residual exception of IRE 5.807. The requirements of this exception were summarized as “trustworthiness, materiality, necessity, service of the interests of justice, and notice.” State v. Rojas, 524 N.W.2d. 659 (Iowa 1994). The Court explained that these factors aren’t weighed, but rather, they must all be satisfied. State v. Weaver, 554 N.W.2d 240 (Iowa 1996).

The Court explained that the distinctive component of Iowa’s residual exception is “necessity.” Rojas. Necessity is not used in the absolute sense of the term, but instead, it means the evidence only needs to be “more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence that the proponent can obtain through reasonable efforts.” IRE 5.807(3). The word “probative” means “tending to prove or disprove.” Black’s Law Dictionary (11th Ed. 2019). To sum up the necessity requirement as applied to the instant case, the question the Court had to answer was: Did K.W.’s video interviews tend to prove what happened to K.W. better than her trial testimony in which she was subject to cross-examination?

In Rojas, the Court allowed an admission of a video interview under the residual exception when a 10-year-old girl recanted her prior accusations during her trial testimony. The Rojas Court decided the necessity requirement was satisfied because “the video was the best direct evidence implicating Rojas as the child’s abuser, it was the most probative evidence linking Rojas to the crime.”

But in the instant case, K.W.’s statements in the CPC interviews were essentially the same as her live testimony at trial wherein she described the abuse in detail and identified her abuser. Therefore, the Court found the CPC video interviews did not satisfy the necessity requirement of IRE 5.807(3), and thus, the residual exception did not apply.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the decision of the COA, reversed Skahill’s convictions, and remanded for a new trial. See: State v. Skahill, 966 N.W.2d 1 (Iowa 2021). 

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State v. Skahill



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