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State v. Suttles

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

June 28, 2019

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
ELIZABETH SUTTLES, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Honorable Christopher E. McGraugh

          KURT S. ODENWALD, PRESIDING JUDGE

         Introduction

         Elizabeth Suttles ("Suttles") appeals from the judgment of the trial court, entered after a jury convicted her of furnishing pornographic materials to a minor and first-degree statutory sodomy. On appeal, Suttles challenges the testimony of two witnesses regarding delayed disclosures of sexual-abuse incidents (Points One and Two) and the trial court's exclusion of certain testimony of the victim's hallucinations (Point Three). Because both witnesses were qualified and their testimony concerning delayed disclosures was generalized, relevant, and reliable, the trial court did not err in allowing their testimony. Because the evidence of the victim's hallucinations proffered by Suttles during her offer of proof was cumulative and unfairly prejudicial, we find no error in the trial court's exclusion of such evidence. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Factual and Procedural History

         We view the facts of this case in the light most favorable to the verdict. State v. Forrest, 183 S.W.3d 218, 223 (Mo. banc 2006) (internal citation omitted). We address only the facts relevant to Suttles's points on appeal.

         J.J. knew Suttles as the daughter-in-law of his grandmother's friend. J.J. spent time with Suttles and her husband when J.J. was young. Specifically, J.J. occasionally spent the night at Suttles's home when J.J.'s mother worked. Suttles lived with her husband and her in-laws. J.J.'s grandmother was often present when J.J. was at the Suttleses' home.

         When J.J. was approximately six-years old, he was alone in the Suttleses' family basement with Suttles and her husband. After J.J. had already been in the basement for a time, Suttles and her husband began having sex while J.J. watched. While having sex with her husband, Suttles forced J.J. to "play with her breasts and suck on her breasts." Suttles then told J.J. to remove his pants and placed J.J.'s penis in her mouth. J.J. did not speak of this incident until he was ten years old, at which time he told his mother that he was sexually assaulted without providing any detail.

         Six years later, in 2017, J.J. attempted suicide. During this time and since he was twelve-years old, J.J. had experienced suicidal thoughts and hallucinations. On the way home from the hospital, J.J. told his mother about the incident with Suttles and her husband. J.J. subsequently reported the incident to the police.

         The State then charged Suttles with one count of furnishing pornographic materials to a minor and one count of statutory sodomy in the first degree. The case proceeded to a jury trial.

         I. Anthony Harper's Testimony

         During pre-trial proceedings, Suttles sought to exclude the testimony of Anthony Harper ("Harper"), a forensic-interviewer for the Children's Advocacy Center. Suttles maintained that Harper's testimony was particularized and failed to meet the Daubert[1] test for admissibility of evidence. The trial court labeled Harper's anticipated testimony as generalized, but deferred any admissibility determination until hearing the testimony at trial.

         Following voir dire, the State conducted an offer of proof regarding Harper's testimony. Harper testified that during his work as a forensic interviewer, he conducted 863 child interviews. Further, Harper spoke at length about his experiences with children disclosing incidents of abuse:

I've interviewed kids who have provided what I would refer to as a tentative disclosure where they provided some information. I've experienced children who have provided some accounts of what happened, and the person who was alleged to have committed those acts has admitted to more than what the child told me.
I've had kids that provided a complete account of what's happening to them as best as their abilities afforded them, and there's been some rare instances where a child has taken back what they've said during an interview.

         The trial court ruled that Harper's testimony was admissible before the jury. The trial court determined that Harper was a qualified expert and that his proffered testimony met the Daubert standard for admissibility.

         At trial, Harper testified regarding his work as a forensic interviewer and his expertise and skills regarding child interviews. Harper interviewed J.J. when J.J. was approximately fifteen years old. Harper discussed generally his interview style with children and his ability to filter out suggestibility among children and look past inconsistencies in children's narratives. The State asked Harper about the different types of disclosures by children who have been abused. Suttles objected, arguing that Harper lacked the level of expertise necessary to permit him to testify about different types of disclosures. The trial court overruled Suttles's objection. Harper testified that delayed disclosures of child-abuse victims are not uncommon or unusual. Harper discussed, in detail, the various types of disclosures made by child-victims in cases of sexual abuse, including delayed disclosures.

         During cross-examination by Suttles, Harper testified that he did not know the exact number of interviews he had conducted on children of various age groups. Harper emphasized that every situation is different regarding both the child's disclosure and the interviewer's ability to assess the veracity of the child's statements.

         II. Det. Kelli Swinton's Testimony

         At trial, the State called Kelli Swinton ("Det. Swinton"), a St. Louis City police detective, to testify regarding her investigation of J.J.'s case. While working in the child-abuse unit, Det. Swinton received several trainings, including ChildFirst-which teaches general techniques for investigating crimes involving children and the process of child disclosures-a week-long training regarding victims of child abuse, and child-family training. Det. Swinton was assigned to J.J.'s case after the incident was reported through the police department hotline. Although Det. Swinton investigated Suttles and acted as the arresting officer, she did not interview J.J. personally.

         The State questioned Det. Swinton regarding the occurrence of delayed disclosures in child-abuse cases, given her four years of experience in the child-abuse unit and her work on approximately one hundred cases per year-the majority of which involved sexual abuse. Suttles objected to this line of questioning, arguing that any testimony from Det. Swinton about delayed disclosures was irrelevant, speculative, and invaded the province of the jury. After a discussion and the State laying further foundation for Det. Swinton's delayed-disclosures testimony, the trial court overruled Suttles's objection. Det. Swinton then testified that she typically handled more sexual-abuse cases than other child-victim cases. Det. Swinton further testified that, based upon her experience, it is very common for child-victims of sexual abuse to delay disclosing the abuse. Det. Swinton testified that over ninety percent of disclosures by child-victims of sexual abuse were delayed disclosures.

         Suttles cross-examined Det. Swinton regarding her experience with delayed disclosures. In response to Suttles's questions, Det. Swinton could not provide specific statistics regarding the number of her child-abuse cases that involved a delayed disclosure after the sexual assault.

         III. Hallucination Evidence

         During pre-trial proceedings, the State moved to limit evidence relating to J.J.'s adjudication proceeding in juvenile court. Specifically, the State sought to exclude specific evidence of J.J.'s adjudication, including the charges, class of the offense, sentence, and punishment. Suttles, however, sought leave of the trial court to allow questioning concerning J.J.'s juvenile history and the connection of that juvenile history to J.J.'s hallucinations. The trial court prohibited the introduction of evidence relating to J.J.'s adjudication unless Suttles could show a connection of such evidence to a motive or bias at trial. Additionally, the State sought to exclude evidence of J.J.'s mental-health medical diagnosis. The trial court permitted Suttles to ask J.J. whether he was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. Because Suttles did not intend to go into the specific medical diagnosis, the trial court did not rule on the admissibility of J.J.'s medical history.

         At trial, the trial court permitted both the State and Suttles to question J.J. about his hallucinations and the events leading to his 2017 hospitalization following his suicide attempt. J.J. testified that he experienced hallucinations before and while he was in the hospital. J.J. related one hallucination where he saw a little boy standing face first in a dark corner of the room. J.J. also noted that he experienced multiple auditory hallucinations where male and female voices would tell him to hurt himself. However, J.J. was firm in his testimony that he did not hallucinate the sexual abuse incident involving Suttles:

[b]ecause I know whenever I'm seeing something that's not there and I know when something actually happened because I feel it and I remember everything. I remember where it all took place. I remember their names. I remember what the rooms looked like. I remember how it sounded; what it smelled like; what it looked like. I remember everything.

         In response to Suttles's questions about J.J.'s hospitalization following his 2017 suicide attempt, J.J. testified that he attempted suicide after an argument with his father. The State objected to Suttles questioning J.J. about whether his father was around when J.J. was growing up and whether J.J.'s father was in jail. Suttles explained to the court that she wished to provide evidence that J.J.'s father was in jail during the attempted suicide incident and that J.J. had hallucinated the argument that he says led him to attempt suicide. The trial court allowed Suttles's line of questioning. Suttles then asked J.J. whether he had a conversation with his father on January 17, 2017 at a restaurant with his mother and sister. J.J. admitted that he had spoken in person with his father.

         Suttles sought to question J.J. about other incidents of hallucinations; in particular, whether J.J. had hallucinations telling him to break into people's garages and houses. The trial court sustained the State's objection to the introduction of evidence mentioning J.J.'s prior juvenile criminal history. The trial court found the evidence bordered on character evidence, and that Suttles was unable to show the relevance of such evidence on the issue of J.J.'s truthfulness.

         Outside the hearing of the jury, Suttles made an offer of proof regarding J.J.'s hallucinations telling him to break into people's garages and houses:

SUTTLES: [J.J.], you had auditory hallucinations that told you to break into people's garages. Is that right?
J.J.: Yes, ma'am.
SUTTLES: You had auditory hallucinations that told you to enter into people's houses. Is that right?
J.J.: Yes, ma'am.
SUTTLES: You had auditory hallucinations that told you on occasion to hurt other people beside ...

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