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State v. Barnhardt

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 16, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
RYAN BARNHARDT, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Boone County, Steven J. Oeth, Judge.

         Ryan Barnhardt appeals from the judgment and sentence entered following his convictions on ten counts of sexual abuse.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Maria L. Ruhtenberg, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Timothy M. Hau, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., Doyle, J., and Scott, S.J. [*]

          DOYLE, JUDGE.

         Ryan Barnhardt appeals from the judgment and sentence entered following his convictions on ten counts of sexual abuse, which the State brought against him after five children alleged that Barnhardt had engaged in sex acts with them.

         I. Expert Witness Testimony.

         Barnhardt first contends the district court erred by allowing testimony from the State's expert witness that improperly vouched for the complaining witnesses' credibility. We review the district court's ruling on the admissibility of expert witness testimony for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Dudley, 856 N.W.2d 668, 675 (Iowa 2014). An abuse of discretion occurs when the district court "exercises its discretion on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable." Id. "When a ground or reason is based on an erroneous application of the law or not supported by substantial evidence, it is untenable." Id.

         A person with specialized knowledge that will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue may testify as an expert witness. See Iowa R. Evid. 5.702. An expert witness may not directly or indirectly comment on the credibility of a witness or bolster a witness's credibility. See State v. Dudley, 856 N.W.2d 668, 676-77 (Iowa 2014). Our supreme court has recognized that in cases of child sexual abuse, "there is a very thin line between testimony that assists the jury in reaching its verdict and testimony that conveys to the jury that the child's out-of-court statements and testimony are credible." Id. at 677. Barnhardt asserts that line was crossed here.

         Tammera Bibbins testified as an expert witness for the State. Bibbins is a forensic interviewer trained to interview children when there are allegations of abuse. Although Bibbins interviewed all five complaining witnesses, she testified she was not rendering an opinion as to whether the children were being truthful in their interviews or whether Barnhardt was guilty.[1] She testified her job "is simply to interview children and try to provide an environment where they can give the most accurate account" of what occurred. Bibbins testified generally about the misconceptions adults have of children and how children may react to traumatic events:

Q. Is there also kind of misconceptions sometimes with adults about children's ability to be able to relate times?
MR. ROUNDS [Public Defender]: Objection. Vouching.
MS. KRISKO [Assistant Attorney General]: This was specifically okayed in [State v.] Tjernagel[, No. 15-1519, 2017 WL 108291 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 11, 2017)].
THE COURT: Just talk generally about kids, not about the kids in this case, okay?
THE WITNESS: Okay.
THE COURT: That's what you're doing?
THE WITNESS: Yes.
THE COURT: Overruled.
THE WITNESS: Could you repeat the question?
Q. Sure. Again we're not talking specifics. I mentioned that you did interview but you are now talking about children in general, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And child sexual abuse dynamics? A. Yes.
Q. Okay. Is there a misconception amongst a lot of adults that kids are good time keepers?
MR. ROUNDS: Same objection.
THE COURT: Same ruling.
A. Yes, there is a misconception.
Q. And so would you explain to the jury what that misconception is?
MR. ROUNDS: Same objection.
THE COURT: Same ruling.

A. Research says that children really aren't good at clock time until they're maybe around ten years of age, and kind of think about it in terms of as adults we keep appointments, we have calendars, we have watches. We . . . have calendars that keep us on track.

         Children don't have that. They get told where to go, they get told what time things are. So they really don't have to pay attention to time. And their days are pretty similar day to day where adults ...


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