Justice Nels Peterson, Georgia Supreme Court (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Justice Nels Peterson, Georgia Supreme Court (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A Georgia Supreme Court ruling Tuesday covered new ground in allowing testimony from doctors in a child sex abuse case, reversing an opposite holding from the Georgia Court of Appeals nearly a year ago.

“We granted certiorari to decide whether hearsay identifying the alleged sexual abuser of a child victim is admissible under the hearsay exception for statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment found in OCGA § 24-8-803 (4) (“Rule 803 (4)”),” Justice Nels Peterson said in the opening of a 23-page opinion. His answer was yes and the decision was unanimous save for one justice.

The court’s newest member, Justice Charlie Bethel, was disqualified. Bethel, who was sworn in last week, was on the Court of Appeals panel that was reversed.

Peterson parsed through the Georgia Evidence Code that took effect in January 2013.

“Under the new Evidence Code, we know that Georgia evidence rules that track the federal rules are to be interpreted according to federal case law, while rules that were instead carried over from the old Evidence Code are to be interpreted according to our case law,” Peterson said. “But Georgia Rule 803 (4) is materially identical to both an existing federal rule and a provision of the old Georgia Evidence Code. Federal case law construing Federal Rule of Evidence 803 (4) has held that the identity of an alleged child sexual abuser may, in certain circumstances, be admissible. Georgia case law construing the old state rule held that such evidence was not admissible.”

So here’s where Peterson came down opposite the Court of Appeals panel.

“Because the fundamental rule of the new Evidence Code is that federal appellate case law applies when a Georgia rule is materially identical to a federal rule and has not yet been interpreted by a Georgia appellate court, we conclude that the new Evidence Code displaced our old Georgia precedent and so federal case law applies here. Accordingly, Rule 803 (4) permits the admission of identity in child sexual abuse cases when reasonably pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment,” Peterson said. “We reverse the Court of Appeals’s decision to the contrary and remand with instructions to vacate the trial court’s order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The decision is a victory for prosecutors, who can now proceed with a rape case against a man whose stepdaughter and wife left the country after reporting the abuse. That leaves the doctors who examined the child and talked with the mother as key witnesses.

“We are pleased with this unanimous opinion from Justice Peterson and the Supreme Court,” Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said Monday afternoon by email. “We felt strongly that this would ultimately be the Supreme Court’s resolution of the issue.”

The decision allows Cobb County prosecutors to introduce the testimony of two doctors who reported what they had heard from the child’s mother—that her daughter, when she was 13 years old, had reported her stepfather sexually assaulted her. After a hearing during which both doctors testified the child never said anything during their visits, Cobb County Superior Court Judge A. Gregory Poole ruled that the doctors could testify on their medical findings and the mother’s comments, but barred them from identifying the defendant.

Antonio Tapia Almanza was charged with rape and other child sexual assault crimes. The state appealed, arguing Poole mistakenly relied on legal precedent from a pre-2013 version of Georgia’s rule governing the admissibility of evidence “made for purposes of medical diagnoses or treatment.”

Instead, the state argued, Poole should have turned to federal precedent.

Although Peterson ultimately agreed with the Cobb DA, Almanza’s attorneys claimed victory, too.

“We believe this is a win for Mr. Almanza because, while the Supreme Court did not affirm the trial court’s ruling, the Court’s decision makes clear that they also had reliability concerns with this hearsay,” Ashleigh Merchant said by email Monday evening. She and her husband and law partner, John Merchant, represent Almanza.

“While we advocated that there was no abuse of discretion and that Georgia law should apply, the alternative we advocated should the Court choose not to apply Georgia was exactly what the Supreme Court adopted—the stringent test first set forth in Renville,” Merchant said. “The State wanted a much watered down version of Renville and we are very pleased that the Supreme Court declined to adopt the standard for admission advocated by the District Attorney’s Office.”

Merchant was referring to the 1985 Eight Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision in U.S. v. Renville, which Peterson mentioned frequently,

“No circuit has held that testimony regarding the identification of an alleged child abuser is categorically inadmissible under Federal Rule 803 (4).” Peterson said. “Some appellate courts have allowed identification testimony in child sexual abuses.”

Peterson examined what sets these cases apart.

“In the case of child sexual abuse, the federal courts have determined that the identification of the alleged abuser may be ‘reasonably pertinent’ to the medical diagnosis and treatment of the child,” Peterson said. “Child abuse involves more than physical injury; the physician must be attentive to treating the emotional and psychological injury which accompany this crime. The exact nature and extent of the psychological problems which ensue from child abuse often depend on the identity of the abuser.”

The case is State v. Almanza, No. S18G0585.