Supreme Judicial Court (July 16, 2009)
More than one first complaint witness is appropriate where there is ongoing abuse over a period of many years, with escalating abuse during that time period, and the disclosures occurred at two separate intervals. However, if more than one first complaint witness is allowed, the complaint testimony introduced must relate to different crimes.
The defendant was convicted of multiple sexual offenses against his two daughters. On appeal, one of the defendant's many claims was that the judge erred in allowing the testimony of multiple first complaint witnesses. The SJC transferred the case from the Appeals Court and affirmed the convictions.
The defendant began sexually abusing his daughters when they were in elementary school, with the abuse continuing throughout the girls' high school years. The abuse escalated from sexual touching to digital penetration to penile penetration. The first daughter disclosed the abuse to her mother while still in elementary school, but the abuse continued and escalated. The same daughter, while in college, disclosed the abuse to an academic advisor. The other daughter, during her senior year of high school, disclosed the abuse to her pastor. The trial judge ruled that two first complaint witnesses could testify as to the abuse of the first daughter, and one first complaint witness could testify concerning the abuse of the second daughter.
The SJC concluded that the first complaint doctrine " permits testimony from two first complaint witnesses in circumstances such as those here, where each witness testifies to disclosures made years apart concerning different periods of time and escalating levels of abuse, which constitute different and more serious criminal acts committed over a lengthy period."