Iowa Supreme Court splits on when hearsay is admissible in domestic abuse cases

by Rox Laird | March 8, 2016

When should “hearsay testimony” of a medical professional identifying an alleged perpetrator be admitted in a domestic-assault prosecution? Only when the testimony is relevant to a medical procedure, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision revealed a split among the justices on how judges should deal with domestic abuse cases where victims often refuse to cooperate with the prosecution.

Friday’s ruling in State of Iowa v. Trent D. Smith illustrates the challenge.

When police brought a visibly battered woman to a Waterloo hospital for emergency treatment, she told a doctor and nurse she had been assaulted by her “baby’s daddy.” But she changed her story at trial and testified for the defense in the prosecution of her child’s father, Trent D. Smith.

The jury nonetheless convicted Smith of domestic assault based on the testimony of an emergency room doctor and nurse. But the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, said the trial court should not have allowed the medical professionals’ testimony, and sent the case back to the trial court.

An exception to the rule against hearsay testimony is allowed when testimony identifying an alleged perpetrator is reasonably related to medical diagnosis or treatment. A statement identifying an assailant is considered more reliable, for example, in child sexual abuse cases where the identity of the perpetrator is reasonably related to medical treatment, which extends to both physiological and psychological injuries. That is not necessarily the case when a victim is assaulted by a stranger.

In earlier rulings, the court has made an exception to the hearsay testimony rule in child sexual abuse prosecutions. But in Friday’s case, the court stopped short of extending that exception to domestic abuse prosecutions. In those cases, the court said, judges must make the determination on a case-by-case basis that the identity of the perpetrator was “reasonably pertinent” to medical treatment or diagnosis.

“The profound and serious problem of domestic abuse in this nation and this state does not escape us in our analysis of this case,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the majority. “These problems are significant for victims of domestic abuse and the children who have suffered by witnessing the abuse.”

But the court declined to go beyond this case to create a generalized rule.

Writing in dissent, Justice Thomas Waterman, joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager, argued that the court should have created an explicit exemption to the hearsay rule. Citing what he called “sobering statistics” that victims of domestic abuse are repeatedly assaulted over periods of years, Justice Waterman said, “we should adopt a per se rule that the identification of the perpetrator of domestic violence is pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment and admissible under” the hearsay rule.

The Chief Justice noted that if such an exception is warranted, the court should do it through its rulemaking authority. With three votes already on record in favor of the change, the odds look good for that happening, maybe as soon as the court’s next administrative session in August.


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