NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-4972-16T2
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
Submitted January 15, 2020 – Decided February 3, 2020
Before Judges Koblitz, Whipple and Mawla.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Passaic County, Indictment No.15-03-0228.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for
appellant (Marcia H. Blum, Assistant Deputy Public
Defender, of counsel and on the briefs).
Camelia M. Valdes, Passaic County Prosecutor,
attorney for respondent (Robert John Wisse, Assistant
Prosecutor, on counsel and on the brief).
Defendant Aurelio Librado appeals from his April 24, 2017 convictions
of aggravated sexual contact, endangerment, luring, and criminal restraint of the
minor L.A.1 The trial court erred in admitting both expert testimony of Child
Sexual Assault Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) and the victim's belated
responses to her parents' questions and subsequent disclosure to her godmother
as fresh complaint evidence. We agree and reverse.
A jury convicted defendant of third-degree aggravated criminal sexual
contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3(a) (count three); fourth-degree criminal sexual
contact, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-3(b) (count four); third-degree endangering the welfare
of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) (count five); second-degree lure or entice a
child, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-6 (count six); and third-degree criminal restraint, N.J.S.A.
2C:13-2(a) (count seven). Defendant was sentenced to an aggregate eight-year
Trial testimony revealed the following facts. On Saturday, May 25, 2013,
between twenty-five and forty guests were invited to defendant's home to
celebrate his nephew's first communion. Defendant lived with his girlfriend,
their three children, his girlfriend's two children, and his brother's family.
We use initials pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:82-46 and Rule 1:38-3(c)(9).
L.A.'s mother, the communicant's godmother, attended the party with her
husband and daughters. Guests were scattered throughout the home and
backyard. L.A., then fifteen years old, spent most of her time playing with
defendant's young daughters on the front porch.
L.A. exited from the first-floor bathroom and noticed defendant "right
outside." Although L.A. had seen defendant "around" prior to this party, she
had "never had a conversation with him or anything like that." While
defendant's girlfriend testified that defendant did not drink during the party, L.A.
recalled that defendant's breath smelled like alcohol. He told her in Spanish that
"he wanted [her] to go with him, to speak to him." L.A. responded in Spanish
and said that she did not want to, but defendant "pushed" her right arm, directing
her out of the first-floor apartment and into a hall. Defendant locked the door
from where they exited and the door between the front porch and the hall where
they were standing. He then led her down the stairs into the basement, locking
the door behind them.
L.A. explained that once in the basement, she did not say anything because
she knew nobody would hear her. Defendant pushed L.A. into the wall and
kissed her. He pulled down her shirt and bra and sucked on her breast before
trying to vaginally penetrate her. Unable to do so, he turned L.A. around and
inserted his penis between her buttocks. After a few minutes, L.A. turned around
and defendant again tried to vaginally penetrate her. At that time, L.A. told
defendant to leave her alone, but he kept insisting they continue. She said to
him that someone will be looking for her, but he said that no one noticed that
she was gone. L.A. pushed defendant and quickly pulled up her pants before
heading towards the stairs. Defendant grabbed L.A.'s hand and told her not to
tell anyone what happened. He kissed her again and then unlocked the door.
L.A. went straight into the bathroom and noticed semen on the tissue she
was using to clean herself. About ten minutes later, L.A. returned to the front
porch. Defendant's girlfriend's son, J.M. who is around the same age as L.A.,
saw L.A. crying and asked her what happened. Although L.A. had seen J.M. in
the neighborhood, she explained the party was the first time she talked to him.
She told him, "[Y]our stepfather sexually violated me." J.M. testified that
knowing his stepfather, he did not believe L.A. He did not share with anyone
what L.A. told him until he was asked to speak with the Passaic County Police
Department a year later, in April 2014.
For the remainder of the party, L.A. tried to avoid her mother because she
"felt embarrassed" and "couldn't look at her in the eyes." When asked at trial
why L.A. did not immediately tell her mother what happened, L.A. explained
she worried about what would happen to her family's relationship with
defendant's family and did not want defendant's daughters to grow up without a
father. The night of the incident, L.A. tried to act as though nothing happened
so her parents would not find out. Her mother testified that while L.A. "seemed
. . . calm and at ease" the day of the party, the next day when L.A.'s family was
to return to defendant's home for another event, she had to "force" L.A. to come
Although L.A. tried to forget what happened, in the months following the
party, she became aggressive, easily irritated and angry. She would complain
of stomachaches and did not eat well. She also began to cut herself.
In January 2014, after L.A.'s parents confronted her about her behavior,
threatening to send her to see a psychiatrist, she revealed she was "sexually
violated." At that time, L.A. did not disclose any details. The next day when
L.A.'s parents insisted she tell them more, L.A. cut herself and her parents called
the police. L.A. was taken to the police station, but she did not say who had
sexually assaulted her. The officer noticed L.A. showed signs of self-harm so
she was taken to the hospital, where she stayed for about one week.
The following month, L.A. visited her godmother and told her details
about how she was sexually violated. L.A. did not tell her the defendant's name
but told her where the incident occurred and the assailant's relationship to her
family. The godmother called L.A.'s parents and an ambulance took L.A. to the
hospital, where she stayed one night. In March 2014, L.A. spoke with the
Passaic County Prosecutor's Office bilingual child interview specialist and
named defendant as the person who had sexually violated her.
As allowed by the court, the State presented expert testimony from Dr.
Brett A. Biller, Psy.D., on CSAAS, and introduced L.A.'s statements to her
mother and godmother as fresh complaints. L.A.'s statement to J.M. was also
admitted as an excited utterance. In addition to L.A., who testified extensively
about the incident, her mother, godmother, and J.M. were among the seven
witnesses the State presented. Defendant did not testify.
On appeal, defendant raises the following issues:
I. IT WAS ERROR TO ADMIT EXPERT
TESTIMONY ON THE CHILD SEX ABUSE
ACCOMMODATION SYNDROME BECAUSE IT IS
JUNK SCIENCE, WAS NOT RELEVANT TO ANY
ISSUE, AND IMPROPERLY BOLSTERED THE
A. CSAAS WAS INADMISSIBLE BECAUSE IT
IS JUNK SCIENCE.
B. CSAAS WAS INADMISSIBLE BECAUSE IT
WAS NOT RELEVANT TO ANY ISSUE.
C. EVEN IF CSAAS TESTIMONY WAS
ADMISSIBLE TO EXPLAIN THE PURPORTED
DELAYED DISCLOSURE, IT WAS NOT LIMITED
TO EXPLAINING DELAYED DISCLOSURE.
II. IT WAS ERROR TO ADMIT THE FRESH-
COMPLAINT EVIDENCE BECAUSE THE VICTIM
PROMPTLY REPORTED THE ALLEGED ABUSE.
III. THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF THE
ERRONEOUSLY ADMITTED FRESH-COMPLAINT
TESTIMONY AND THE ERRONEOUSLY
ADMITTED CSAAS TESTIMONY WARRANTS
IV. THE MATTER MUST BE REMANDED FOR A
NEW SENTENCING HEARING BECAUSE THE
CURRENT SENTENCE IS BASED ON THREE
INAPPROPRIATE AGGRAVATING FACTORS.
V. THE MATTER MUST BE REMANDED FOR A
NEW SENTENCING HEARING BECAUSE THE
SENTENCES ON COUNTS 3, 5, AND 7 ARE
We review a trial court's evidentiary rulings under a deferential standard
and will "uphold [the trial court's] determinations 'absent a showing of an abuse
of discretion.'" State v. Scott, 229 N.J. 469, 479 (2017) (quoting State v. Perry,
225 N.J. 222, 233 (2016)). Under that standard, "[a] reviewing court must not
'substitute its own judgment for that of the trial court' unless there was a 'clear
error in judgment'—a ruling 'so wide of the mark that a manifest denial of justice
resulted.'" Ibid. (quoting Perry, 225 N.J. at 233). If the trial court applies the
incorrect standard, this court reviews the trial court's evidentiary ruling de novo.
State v. Garrison, 228 N.J. 182, 194 (2017).
I. CSAAS evidence inadmissible.
Our Supreme Court recently held that "CSAAS does not satisfy a basic
standard of admissibility—reliability—because it is not generally accepted by
the scientific community . . . . [T]hefore [it] may no longer be presented to
juries," except as to delayed disclosure. State v. J.L.G., 234 N.J. 265, 308
(2018). Thus, Dr. Biller should not have been allowed to testify about CSAAS,
unless the delayed disclosure exception applied. We afforded pipeline
retroactivity to this holding. State v. G.E.P., 458 N.J. Super. 436, 443 (App.
Div. 2019), cert. granted, 239 N.J. 598 (2019).
"Whether a victim's delayed disclosure is beyond the ken of the average
juror will depend on . . . [whether] a child witness can offer a rational
explanation for the delay . . . ." J.L.G., 234 N.J. at 305. In J.L.G, the Court
held that expert testimony was not necessary because the victim testified she
delayed reporting the abuse because defendant had threatened her, she was
embarrassed, and she feared her mother's reaction. Ibid. Similarly, L.A.
testified she delayed disclosure
[b]ecause . . . all that came to my mind was the
[defendant's] little girls. I didn't want them not to – not
– to live without a father. And . . . I knew if I talked
. . . my family and their family, there is always [going]
to be issues around since we live in the same town.
Like the victim in J.L.G., L.A. gave sound reasons for why she delayed
disclosure to her parents. Since the expert testimony was not required to "assist
the trier of fact," the trial court erred in admitting the expert testimony. See
II. Fresh complaint evidence.
L.A. revealed to J.M. that defendant sexually violated her almost
immediately after the incident occurred. The court admitted this revelation as
an excited utterance. See N.J.R.E. 803(c)(2) (2019). The trial court abused its
discretion when admitting L.A.'s statements to her mother and godmother many
months later under the fresh complaint doctrine.
The fresh complaint doctrine allows "evidence of a victim's complaint of
sexual abuse, otherwise inadmissible as hearsay, to negate the inference that the
victim's initial silence or delay indicates that the charge is fabricated." State v.
R.K., 220 N.J. 444, 455 (2015). Here, the victim was not initially silent.
Instead, she revealed what happened to another child her own age.
Also, "to qualify as fresh-complaint evidence, the victim's statement must
have been made spontaneously and voluntarily, within a reasonable time after
the alleged assault, to a person the victim would ordinarily turn to for support."
R.K. 220 N.J. at 455. "[S]tatements that are procured by pointed, inquisitive,
coercive interrogation," fail to satisfy the spontaneity and voluntary
requirement. State v. Hill, 121 N.J. 150, 167 (1990). "The line, however,
between non-coercive questioning and coercive questioning depends on the
circumstances of the interrogation." Ibid. The trial judge should consider the
following factors when making this determination:
[T]he age of the victim; the circumstances under which
the interrogation takes place; the victim's relationship
with the interrogator, i.e., relative, friend, professional
counselor, or authoritarian figure; who initiated the
discussion; the type of questions asked—whether they
are leading and their specificity regarding the alleged
abuser and the acts alleged.
[Id. at 168.]
In young children, more extensive questioning is allowed. Hill, 121 N.J.
at 167. L.A. was fifteen years old, not a young child. The responses to her
parents' questioning came at least eight months after the incident and in response
to repeated questioning. They pressured her to in a loud voice to explain her
aggressive behavior. She told her godmother about the incident a month later.
The court abused its discretion in admitting this hearsay evidence from her
mother and godmother to support her testimony.
III. Cumulative error.
Both CSAAS and fresh-complaint testimony from the victim's mother and
godmother were improperly admitted. "An error is harmless unless, in light of
the record as a whole, there is a 'possibility that it led to an unjust verdict' . . . a
possibility 'sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt' that 'the error led the jury to a
result it otherwise might not have reached.'" J.L.G., 234 N.J. at 306 (quoting
State v. Macon, 57 N.J. 325, 335-36 (1971)). Error that may be harmless in
itself, when combined with another error may have a "cumulative effect [that]
can cast sufficient doubt on a verdict to require reversal." State v. Jenewicz,
193 N.J. 440, 473 (2008).
After relaying to the jury his extensive educational and experiential
credentials, Dr. Biller testified that CSAAS was designed by "advocates for
children." He said he worked with children who were victims of child abuse
and maltreatment, as did the author of the groundbreaking research that led to
CSAAS. He then explained how CSAAS helps to explain how children's
behavior might lead someone to believe they were not victims, when in fact they
were. Dr. Biller explained in great detail and depth the various behaviors that
might mislead an adult into thinking no abuse occurred. Although the court
issued a then-applicable brief limiting instruction informing the jury to consider
the testimony only as it relates to delayed disclosure, Model Jury Charges
(Criminal), "Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome" (rev. May 16,
2011),2 we cannot discount the power of the expert's testimony. The evidence
was particularly unnecessary because the victim did disclose the abuse
immediately, albeit to a peer, and rationally explained the delay in reporting to
adult family members.
The improper admission of hearsay evidence, erroneously categorized as
"fresh complaint" evidence from the victim's mother and godmother is difficult
to weigh. Certainly, where, as here, the case relies on the credibility of the
victim, supporting evidence from adult family members is hard to discount.
Without opining on whether either of these two significant errors would be
harmless in itself, together their weight raises a reasonable doubt as to whether
the improper admission of the evidence led to a verdict the jury would otherwise
not have rendered. 3
2 In April 2019, a new jury charge titled "Delayed Disclosure of Child Sexual
Abuse (Where State Introduces Expert Testimony)" was approved.
We need not review the sentencing issues, except to comment that the State
concedes the court mistakenly imposed illegal concurrent eight-year sentences
for the third-degree crimes in counts three, five, and seven.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings. We do not retain