In State v. Black, the Washington Supreme Court faced the question of whether the State, in a rape case, should be allowed to offer expert testimony on rape trauma syndrome ("RTS"). After examining some of the relevant scientific literature, case law, and the standards governing the admissibility of expert testimony, the court held that expert testimony on RTS was inadmissible. The court based its decision on findings that RTS testimony lacks scientific reliability, and that it unfairly prejudices a defendant accused of rape. The court's holding in Black was based on a misinterpretation of the available scientific literature, and on the erroneous belief that expert testimony on RTS is always unfairly prejudicial to the defendant. The court's standard for determining the reliability of scientific evidence is acceptance of a theory within the relevant scientific community. The inaccurate assessment in Black of the scientific reliability of RTS indicates that the court did not adhere to the standard in this case. Research conducted on RTS since the original description of the syndrome in 1974 confirms that RTS is a medically recognized reaction to extreme stress. The psychiatric profession recognizes rape as a cause of a serious anxiety disorder. Most courts that have addressed the issue admit expert testimony on RTS. In analogous contexts, the Washington Supreme Court itself has recognized that expert testimony can explain behavior that is beyond the experience of the average juror. The court does not need to exclude RTS testimony altogether. Where this testimony is directly relevant to the facts of a rape case, it can assist the jury in deciding the issue of consent, while at the same time avoiding unfair prejudice to the defendant. The court could minimize the possibility of unfair prejudice to the defendant in rape cases by limiting the expert's testimony so that it does not comment directly on the credibility of the alleged victim. As additional protection for the defendant, the court could implement procedural safeguards that ensure the testimony's probative value. Finally, the court could instruct the jury on the proper weight to be given to expert testimony.
Deborah A. Dwyer,
Expert Testimony on Rape Trauma Syndrome: An Argument for Limited Admissibility—State v. Black, 109 Wash. 2d 336, 745 P.2d 12 (1987),
63 Wash. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wlr/vol63/iss4/26