Local Attorney Wins State Supreme Court Case
A local lawyer took his case to the state Supreme Court and won, in the process changing North Carolina law.
Patrick M. Mincey and Eddie Meacham, of the Pinehurst firm Van Camp, Meacham & Newman, are defending a Moore County man accused of raping his 8-year-old daughter years ago. The charges were based on the now-adult daughter’s experience of suddenly remembering the alleged attack during counseling sessions with a therapist a decade after the fact.
Two years ago, in Superior Court, Judge John O. Craig III refused to allow testimony by experts on this phenomenon, which is sometimes called “recovered memory syndrome.” It has various other names, but all refer to the idea that traumatic events can be hidden — sometimes for years — and then suddenly recalled.
The case has been on hold while the appeals have worked their way through the system.
In documents filed with the court by both sides, the Moore County case began with a young woman claiming to have had the experience of suddenly remembering a traumatic event from her past.
According to records, the woman the woman started having fainting spells and panic attacks in her late teenage years and sought therapy from numerous providers, according to court documents. Eventually, these episodes progressed to states in which she behaved as if she were regressing to age 7.
Doctors diagnosed her as having “conversion disorder” (which used to be called “hysteria”), and she entered therapy at Moore Regional Hospital’s Behavioral Health Services. During therapy, the woman told of an incident when she slipped while getting out of the bathtub at her father’s house and hurt herself in her “private area.” She remembered her mother taking her to the emergency room.
A therapist told her “how the mind will often protect one by going somewhere else when something very difficult or painful might be happening,” court documents say.
At her next session, she told the therapist she had suddenly remembered her father lifting her from the bathtub and holding her against the wall, then throwing her to the floor and raping her, the documents said. She described that memory as “like a flashback” that suddenly hit her when her boyfriend brushed his arm against her neck.
At issue for the court was whether what the woman went through was recalling an actual event or what doctors call a “pseudo memory,” a false recollection that can be as vivid as a real one.
A previous North Carolina case cited by the state ruled out any testimony about “alleged repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse without accompanying expert testimony on the phenomenon of memory repression” and said any testimony about suddenly remembered traumatic incidents from childhood “must be accompanied by expert testimony on the subject of memory repression.”
Mincey and Meacham had asked the court to suppress such expert testimony, contending the theory of repressed or recovered memory is highly controversial and far from accepted science. Craig agreed to one extent — he found expert testimony too likely to confuse jurors.
After hearing two world-renowned psychiatrists testify for hours about recovered memory — one saying there is no general acceptance that it exists, the other that it is a generally accepted phenomenon, but that therapists don’t examine the truthfulness of a patient — the judge barred such testimony.
“It just runs the risk of confusing the jury or causing undue prejudice,” Craig said. “And that’s really what it comes down to.”
The state appealed, but lost in the Court of Appeals. Lawyers from the attorney general’s office were prosecuting because a relative of the defendant works for District Attorney Maureen Krueger.
Prosecutors believed that the state could not actually try the case in court without offering expert testimony, so they asked the high court to overturn Craig’s ruling, contending he abused judicial discretion.
In its written opinion filed last month, state Supreme Court justices sided with Mincey and upheld Craig’s discretion in not allowing expert testimony on recovered memory.
Then the justices threw everybody a curve and tossed out a preceding case on the issue and said that if the case was re-tried, the victim could testify to her recollections.
“As the trial judge himself noted, scientific progress is ‘rapid and fluid,’” the court wrote in its opinion. “Trial courts are fully capable of handling cases involving claims of repressed memory should new or different scientific evidence be presented.”
What changed with this ruling was the requirement that experts testify. That is now no longer the case.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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