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State v. Schnabel

July 29, 2008


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether the admission of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) evidence was unduly prejudicial and whether evidence of third-party sexual abuse should have been excluded under the Rape Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7.

In 1995, Scott Schnabel, defendant, began dating Mary Doe (because of the sexual nature of the crimes, pseudonyms are used for the victims and their family). In 1996, following their engagement, defendant and his two sons moved into Mary's home. Mary had three children: John, born in 1982; Jane, born in 1984; and Cindy, born in 1987. Defendant and Mary ended their relationship in 1998.

In 1999, when she was twelve years old, Cindy began using drugs. By August 2001, she had a serious heroin problem. As a result, she began drug counseling with a psychologist. During a session with her psychologist, Cindy disclosed that defendant had sexually abused her. Subsequently, police interviewed Cindy and Jane and they both admitted having been sexually abused by defendant. They also admitted that they had been sexually abused by someone else before defendant abused them, but they never disclosed the name of that person. John, their brother, testified before a Grand Jury that he had sexually abused his two sisters.

Defendant filed a motion to allow questioning of Cindy and Jane about John's sexual abuse in order to demonstrate that they had fabricated the case against him. Defendant argued that such evidence should be admitted under an exception to the Rape Shield Law that permits evidence of prior sexual abuse of young children to demonstrate knowledge of sexual acts. Defendant specifically sought to demonstrate that the sexual knowledge exhibited by the sisters was actually based on their abuse by John. Defendant also claimed that there was an issue of credibility. The State sought to exclude evidence of John's sexual abuse, arguing that the source of the girls' sexual knowledge was not in issue in the case because the girls were teenagers in high school at the time of disclosure and that it would not be unusual for them to have had the sexual knowledge necessary to make the allegations. Furthermore, the State argued, such evidence was irrelevant and there was no credibility issue because John and both girls admitted the abuse.

The trial court initially denied defendant's motion, finding that evidence of the prior sexual abuse was not relevant and that the age exception to the Rape Shield Law was inapplicable because the girls were not of tender years. In addition, the court found no credibility issue. Both Jane, then nineteen years of age, and Cindy, then seventeen, testified at trial about defendant's abuse. Dr. Anthony D'Urso, an expert witness on child sexual abuse, testified for the State. Dr. D'Urso testified that CSAAS (Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome) was not a tool for diagnosing whether a child suffers from sexual abuse and that whether it applies to a given child depends on the particular facts of the case. He described the five sequences of CSAAS: (1) secrecy; (2) helplessness; (3) entrapment, coercion, or accommodation; (4) delayed or unconvincing disclosure; and (5) recantation.

Following Dr. D"Urso's testimony, defendant renewed his motion to introduce evidence of John's prior sexual abuse. He argued that the CSAAS testimony left the jury with the impression that the children fit the CSAAS profile and, without the evidence of John's abuse, the jury could only conclude that defendant was the cause of the children exhibiting CSAAS. Defendant noted that the girls not only delayed their disclosure of the purported abuse by defendant but also delayed disclosure of the abuse by their brother. The State argued that the Rape Shield Law barred the evidence of the prior abuse, that the evidence was irrelevant, and that it would only draw the jury's attention to a collateral person, causing confusion.

After argument, the trial court reversed its prior ruling and granted defendant's motion to admit the prior sexual abuse evidence. On appeal, the Appellate Division denied the State's emergent application "to preclude defendant's evidence of the victims' prior sexual abuse." The Supreme Court granted the State's emergent application and summarily reversed the trial court's ruling "without prejudice to defendant's right to raise the issue in an appeal from any subsequent conviction," thus prohibiting evidence of John's conduct.

When the trial continued, defendant testified on his own behalf and denied that he touched either of the girls inappropriately. The trial court conducted an N.J.R.E. 104 hearing out of the presence of the jury to determine whether defendant could answer a question posed by the prosecutor: Why Cindy would lie about the abuse three years after the end of defendant's relationship with the girls' mother. Following a colloquy with the court, the prosecutor sought to withdraw the question. The court denied that request and ordered that defendant not mention the brother when answering the question.

The jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty of each of the counts in the indictment and defendant was sentenced to an aggregate term of thirty years' imprisonment.

The Appellate Division affirmed in an unpublished opinion. The panel found that the trial court properly precluded evidence of John's abuse. Likewise, the panel found no merit in defendant's argument raised for the first time on appeal that the CSAAS evidence by Dr. D'Urso unduly prejudiced defendant by impermissibly bolstering the credibility of the girls.

HELD: The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) evidence was properly admitted and, in light of that evidence, evidence of third-party sexual abuse should have been admitted.

1. Under the Rape Shield Law, "evidence of the victim's previous sexual conduct" is presumed inadmissible at trial. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7a. The concerns underpinning the Rape Shield Law apply equally to a child-victim; i.e., protection of privacy interests, fair trial, and deterrence of unwarranted character assassination. This Court recently addressed the tension between the Rape Shield Law and a defendant's constitutional rights under the Federal and State Confrontation and Compulsory Process Clauses. Both the Federal and New Jersey Constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant's right to confront the witnesses against him or her. To ensure that the Rape Shield Law preserves a defendant's right to a fair trial and to present the relevant evidence necessary for the defense, "evidence relevant to the defense that has probative value outweighing its prejudicial effect must be placed before the trier of fact." State v. Garron, 177 N.J. 147, 172 (2003). That is, the Court must balance competing factors to determine when the admission of prior sexual abuse is appropriate. (Pp. 13-16)

2. The Court must determine whether the evidence sought to be admitted was relevant to the defense, and if so, whether its probative value outweighed its prejudicial effect. Evidence is relevant when it has "a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action." N.J.R.E. 401. The "test [of relevancy] is broad and favors admissibility" unless otherwise excluded by a rule of law. State v. Deatore, 70 N.J. 100, 116 (1976). Evidence of a child's prior sexual abuse and knowledge of sexual acts is relevant to "rebut[] the inference that [the child] acquired the knowledge to describe sexual matters from her experience with [the] defendant," and to demonstrate that the child "had the knowledge to initiate the sexual acts as described by [the] defendant." State v. Budis, 125 N.J. 519, 534 (1991). The Court finds no abuse of discretion in the trial court's initial determination that the evidence was not relevant as to the girls' sexual knowledge. Nevertheless, based on the complete record and the arguments advanced by defendant, the Court now finds the evidence relevant. There were credibility issues among the stories advanced by the three children; the jury was asked to evaluate the CSAAS testimony of Dr. D'Urso on an incomplete record; and, either the prosecutor should have been allowed to withdraw his question to defendant asking why Cindy would lie about the abuse or, once defendant was required to answer the question, he should have been permitted to answer truthfully, including a reference to the brother's conduct. (Pp. 16-19)

3. CSAAS evidence is admissible only for the limited purpose to explain traits sometimes found in abused children that might otherwise undermine their credibility. The trial court must inform the jury of that limited purpose of CSAAS evidence and recommends that the jury be charged in accordance with Model Jury Charge (Criminal), Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (2001). The Court's review of the record satisfies it that there was no error in the expert's CSAAS testimony. Although it was possible for the jury to draw parallels between Dr. D'Urso's CSAAS testimony and each girl's testimony, his testimony was general in nature and did not imply an opinion as to whether the girls were abused. In short, the Court finds no error in the presentation of that evidence. (Pp. 20-21)

We AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part. The matter is REMANDED for a new trial consistent with this opinion.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.

Argued March 11, 2008

Defendant was convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and related offenses allegedly committed against his girlfriend's two daughters. We must determine whether the admission of Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) evidence was unduly prejudicial and whether evidence of third-party sexual abuse should have been excluded under the Rape Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7. We conclude that the CSAAS evidence was properly admitted. ...

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