The Supreme Court of South Carolina issued an opinion today in State v. Chavis. Justice Pleicones drafted the majority opinion. While Chief Justice Toal and Justice Kittredge concurred the result reached by the majority, they disagreed with the reasoning. Justice Hearns dissented and argued for reversal.
Chavis was convicted of “…multiple crimes involving unlawful sexual contact with a minor…” who was his step-daughter. The step-daughter initially reported the sexual abuse in 2004 and was taken to the Durrant Children’s Center where she underwent a forensic interview conducted by Mrs. Ginger Gist and Mrs. Debbie Elliot. The victim later withdrew the allegations only to reassert them again in 2009. In 2009, the victim underwent another forensic interview conducted by Mrs. Robin Griggs.
The testimony of Debbie Elliott and Robin Griggs was introduced at the trial and qualified as expert testimony. In addition to this testimony, testimony from others, non-experts, was introduced as was computer data that included photos of the step-daughter in a state of undress. It is the expert qualification of Elliott and Griggs that Chavis attacked. He argued that neither woman qualified as an expert by South Carolina Rule of Evidence 702. Chavis argued that the admission of their testimony as experts constituted reversible error by the trial court.
The South Carolina Supreme Court, while finding errors with the testimony of Griggs and Elliott, affirmed the conviction, concluding that such errors were harmless. Citing State v. White as the standard for qualifying child abuse assessment experts whose testimony is not scientific, the Court noted that “…the qualifications of the expert must be sufficient, and …there must be determination that the experts’ testimony will be reliable.”
When reaching their decision, the Court noted that there was no evidence introduced that Elliott’s conclusions, drawn from her forensic interviews, were accurate. It was noted that Griggs offered an opinion that appeared to bolster the credibility of the victim step-daughter which invaded the province of the jury. Despite these errors, the Court held that they were “harmless” errors which were “beyond a reasonable doubt.”