Stupid-Syndrome Syndrome
Yet more junk science to confound the legal system.

By David Feige

It all seemed to be going pretty well for Michael Jackson: His accuser's testimony was all over the map; the boy's siblings were telling inconsistent stories; there was even a late-breaking recantation to a high-school teacher. And then, just yesterday, one of the men allegedly abused by Jackson over a decade ago admitted under cross-examination that he'd initially denied to investigators that the singer ever touched him.

Sounds like a job for Dr. Anthony Urquiza.

Urquiza, called earlier in the trial as an expert witness for the prosecution, testified about something called "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome" or CSAAS.

He had never examined Mr. Jackson's accuser. He didn't need to.

As it turns out, CSAAS … explains everything.

CSAAS is a part of an ever widening matrix of criminal-justice related mental-health syndromes whose main goal seems to be to explain away otherwise damaging evidence. Rape trauma syndrome (or RTS), battered woman's syndrome (or BWS), and CSAAS are all examples of this burgeoning field. Etiologically, all three syndromes are the stepchildren of post-traumatic stress disorder (first diagnostically validated by inclusion in the 1980 version of the psychologist's bible—the DSM III). And much like their parent, they all share flexible criteria easily applied to … well, pretty much everything.

And that's the whole problem.

Unlike diseases or disorders in which signs (physical phenomena like bruises) or symptoms (subjective complaints like "my elbow hurts") imply a specific cause (you injured your elbow), syndromes (which are also groups of signs and symptoms) may—but don't necessarily—imply a specific cause. As a consequence, although syndromes may sound scientific, their diagnostic value varies wildly.

CSAAS is, simply put, not diagnostic. First named and described in 1983 in an article by Dr. Roland Summit that described five general attributes of child sexual victims (secrecy, helplessness, denial, delayed disclosure, and retraction) Summit himself has conceded the lack of compelling empirical research support for the syndrome. And when lawyers start importing these scientific curiosities into the courtroom, we all have a serious problem.

Make no mistake about it: Playing the victim-syndrome card isn't limited to rape cases, child-sex cases, or even to prosecutors. Defense lawyers regularly use battered woman's syndrome to explain why Glenda was still in imminent fear for her life, even though she had time to go to the shed, load the shotgun, and blow her abusive husband away while he was quietly sipping a beer. But while battered woman's syndrome solves an evidentiary problem in the law of self-defense (by bolstering an argument about the nature and mechanics of fear in abusive relationships), CSAAS and RTS solve a different and far more insidious prosecutorial problem: the problem of witness credibility.

No one wants to believe kids fabricate allegations of child sex abuse. And yet the behavior of some young complainants and their descriptions of abusive acts may sometimes seem too strange to be credible. (Remember the McMartin pre-school case?) In order to successfully resolve such a situation, prosecutors and their experts have to figure out what to do with the supposed victims who fail to report for years on end, present outlandish scenarios, change their stories, or even recant the entire allegation. One way is to question the veracity of their stories—something that may have helped in some earlier child-sex cases that resulted in terrible miscarriages of justice. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. More often, prosecutors and crusading CSAAS psychologists rely on syndrome testimony to explain that being incredible is actually the ultimate in credibility.

According to CSAAS experts, not reporting abuse is thus consistent with suffering from child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. So is bad behavior, trouble in school, the failure to tell an accurate story, and even the recantation of the entire allegation of abuse. In other words, every criterion usually used by the defense to discredit a witness is actually transubstantiated into evidence that is perfectly consistent with abuse.

And here's the genius: Not exhibiting these signs of CSAAS doesn't mean a child wasn't abused—just that he or she didn't get the syndrome. In other words, a noncredible witness is suffering from the syndrome, but a credible one is merely a credible witness who was legitimately abused.

CSAAS is a prosecutorial silver bullet and a fabricator's best friend. Every mistake you make is consistent with it; every mistake you don't make further confirms your credibility. No wonder prosecutors rely on it to bolster disintegrating cases. By making credibility tautological, CSAAS makes it nearly impossible to present a defense or attack an incredible witness. To make matters worse, CSAAS testimony is deeply appealing to jurors because of its soothing reassurance that otherwise inexplicable or incredible behavior is merely a manifestation of the actual trauma they all expect to see in a victim.

The problem is, of course, that some complainants aren't actually victims at all. And because CSAAS assumes abuse but can't actually diagnose who is and who isn't a victim, it is the perfect exemplar of the problem of bringing nondiagnostic syndrome testimony into court.

Alive to this problem, courts in several states have wisely ruled CSAAS evidence to be inadmissible. In a long line of cases, the Supreme Court of Kentucky, for example, has refused to allow syndrome testimony (including CSAAS), citing the "lack of diagnostic reliability, the lack of general acceptance within the discipline from which such testimony emanates, and the overwhelmingly persuasive nature of such testimony effectively dominating the decision-making process, uniquely the function of the jury."

Unfortunately for Michael Jackson, he is being tried in California, and Judge Rodney Melville doesn't seem to find Kentucky's reasoning very persuasive. And that, combined with his unconscionable ruling allowing prosecutors to admit prior bad acts to show a pattern of behavior, is likely to sink the king of pop.

Ultimately, though, damage from this pseudoscientific syndrome testimony undermines far more than the fairness of Michael Jackson's trial. By creating the ability to explain away any behavior, syndrome testimony threatens to erode our ability to hold both the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators to account for their actions. With syndrome testimony we find ourselves in a frictionless world where up is down, falsehood is truth, and there is an excuse for everything.

Ultimately, the problem with the Orwellian world of syndrome testimony is that anything goes, and everyone goes to jail. Don't like my tone? Blame angry author syndrome. Fail to follow my argument? Maybe you have an abstract reasoning deficit disorder. Getting angry? Want to stab me? Fear not, I'm sure a doctor (maybe even Urquiza himself) will be willing to testify that you are simply suffering from overreactive reader's syndrome.

David Feige, a public defender in the Bronx and a Soros Media Justice Fellow, is the author of the book "Indefensible", to be published in 2005.

Photograph of Michael Jackson by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

     Cases >>
     Eyewitness Identification Issues >>
     Guide to Sentencing >>
     Upcoming Lectures >>
     Public Radio Pieces >>
     Hollywood Work >>
     Television Reel >>

Intermittent musings of a pedantic public defender.

My Blog >>
Huffington Posts >>
David Feige | 224 West 72nd Street #2R | New York, NY 10023
© 2006 David All rights reseved.