Supreme Judicial Court (February 13, 2009)
Testimony that serves no purpose other than to reiterate the fact of a sexual assault complaint is inadmissible as "first complaint" evidence. However, such testimony may be relevant and admissible, in a judge's discretion, for reasons that are independent of the first complaint doctrine.
The defendant was convicted of sexual offenses against two teen sisters. On appeal, the defendant claimed unfair prejudice due to numerous evidentiary errors in violation of the first complaint doctrine. The SJC granted direct appellate review, and concluded that errors allowed the admission of evidence beyond the scope of the first complaint doctrine, which may have caused potential prejudice. The jury verdicts were set aside and the case was remanded to the Superior Court.
The Court found that the jury heard testimony in error that bolstered the complainants' credibility, and thus prejudiced the defendant. The Court reiterated its holdings in both Murungu, 450 Mass. 441 (2008) and Stuckich, 450 Mass. 449 (2008), finding that successive complaints to the first complaint witness are inadmissible - only the initial complaint is admissible under the first complaint doctrine. Evidence of successive complaints and repeated conversations about the assaults nevertheless may be admissible based on other evidentiary principles.