In a Georgia child molestation prosecution, during two separate medical examinations, a young girl’s mother told doctors that the child had identified her alleged sexual abuser. Former Georgia law banned testimony concerning such identifications, even when coming directly from the child to the doctor. Federal courts allow it. So have other states.
An adept prosecutor pursued a pre-trial order to ensure that the identifications made during the examinations could be admitted at trial. Based on the old law, the judge denied the State’s request. The district attorney appealed.
The case had to go through three courts in order to obtain a final ruling. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia struck down the earlier, outright prohibition on the testimony.
But the tragedy for the victim was compounded. By the time the case was returned to be prosecuted, the alleged perpetrator had fled the country. To date, he continues to evade justice.
Even so, to the uninitiated, Georgia House Bill 478 might only arouse interest in Georgia’s bench and bar. The proposal, which would rework the standard for the introduction of medical and other expert opinion in Georgia criminal trials, should be considered in its greater context. Doing so would allow for House Bill 478 to serve as a potential vehicle to spark debate over more extensive justice reforms.
The Primacy of Evidence Law
These authors have explained that evidence law alone determines the two most critical inquiries to any litigant:
- What information the fact–finder will receive; and
- How that proof will be considered.
Accordingly, the rules of evidence have the power to influence and, in many cases, dictate the outcome of legal disputes. This is true in civil, domestic, and criminal proceedings.
Georgia’s New Evidence Code
For decades, Georgia labored under evidence jurisprudence based on rules that were first decreed during the Civil War. Then, in 2011, former Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a new evidence code for Georgia, which became applicable to Georgia trials on January 1, 2013. Georgia’s new evidence rules were fundamentally based on the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Numerous provisions from former Georgia law, however, were maintained. At times, this has created controversy.
House Bill 478’s Limited Focus
One such “holdover” rule relates to the threshold for the admission of expert testimony in criminal trials. House Bill 478 seeks to remedy this by applying the same basic rule for the admission of expert opinion in both civil and criminal trials. This is consistent with federal practice.
Significantly, House Bill 478 does not speak to the unfortunate number of additional Georgia evidence rules that continue to lag behind the Federal Rules of Evidence. Progressive evidence rules that have been adopted in any number of states are similarly not proposed in House Bill 478.
A non-exhaustive sampling demonstrates how House Bill 478 could act as a catalyst for broader conversations about more wide-ranging reforms.
Post-2011 Federal Rules Revisions
Since the 2011 enactment of Georgia’s new evidence code, several federal evidence rules have been revised. Georgia has not adopted any of these upgrades. House Bill 478 could provide a venue to scrutinize enactment of these evolved federal rules in Georgia.
Protecting Defendants’ Rights While Streamlining Trials
Federal Rule of Evidence 611(b) restricts cross-examinations to “the subject matter of the direct examination and matters affecting the witness’s credibility.” Georgia rejected this limitation in favor of the “wide-open” cross–examination rule from former Georgia law. Decades of scholarship has decried the Georgia approach as encroaching on the fair trial rights of criminal defendants.
Federal Rule of Evidence 611(b) also streamlines trials. Case backlogs due to COVID-19 are facing Georgia courts. Modern evidence rules need to embody proposals which advance cases. The federal cross-examination pattern is one such example. Hearings over House Bill 478 could allow for Georgia’s reconsideration of that very federal rule.
Reducing Redundancies and Overlapping Rules
Georgia preserved any number of former Georgia evidence rules on subjects covered by federal rules that Georgia also adopted. This continues to cause unneeded ambiguity. Hearings on House Bill 478 have the potential to advance “clean–up” revisions to areas where two inconsistent rules operate.
Proposing Progressive, Victim-Rights Rules
In sexual assault cases, both the federal and Georgia evidence laws ease character evidence restrictions on policy grounds, helping the cause of rape and child molestation victims. This assists the prosecution of cases where the defendant is a serial sex-offender. It means that the accused’s prior sexual misconduct is more readily admissible.
Eliminating Unneeded Confusion and Delay
As in the child molestation case described at the outset, mixed signals over which body of evidence law applies, new versus old, federal versus former Georgia, has created unnecessary disputes and wasted court time. Expanding the dialogue on House Bill 478 could move Georgia forward in the task of refining its evidence law to avoid statutory pitfalls.
The Importance of Evidence Law Reform
The purpose of this column is not to advance a position on the merits of House Bill 478, or any measure delineated herein. Spirited debate on both sides may well occur in the future.
At the close of the 2021 Georgia legislative session, House Bill 478 remained pending and only concerns one issue: the criminal expert opinion standard. Nevertheless, a more expansive approach to House Bill 478 has the potential to generate discussion over broader reforms, serve universal interests and educate in the process.
Ron and Mike Carlson are trial and appellate advocates, legal authors and lecturers who have taught law school courses in advanced evidence law. Their treatise, Carlson on Evidence, has been cited authoritatively in over 50 Georgia appellate court decisions. The opinions and positions expressed in this column belong to the Carlsons do not represent those of any organization or institution.