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False Accusations and Self-Inflicted Injuries

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The Fall 2007 edition of the Florida Defender, a publication of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, contains an article entitled "False Allegations of Sexual Assault:  Why Do People Lie?" 

In that article, the authors make the insightful observation that "[c]ases of self-inflicted injury are particularly insidious because, except in suicide attempts, law enforcement officers are not accustomed to the phenomenon, and tend to presume the injuries are caused by others.  More important, persuading jurors that an apparent victim is capable of such bizarre behavior is difficult."

A few years ago, I represented a man whose wife claimed that he had attacked her with a box cutter outside the courthouse.  The police had taken the woman to their department where they photographed her injuries which consisted of some parallel cuts on one of her wrists. 

My client adamantly denied his wife’s accusation, and there was reason to believe he was telling the truth.  His wife had a documented history of mental-health problems, and she and my client were currently going through a divorce.

I sent the photographs of the wife’s injuries to a forensic pathologist who immediately concluded that they were self-inflicted.  When I told this to the prosecutor on the case (and to his boss), both dismissed the expert’s conclusion.  The case proceeded to trial.

At trial the jury (aided by the forensic pathologist’s testimony) concluded that my client was not guilty of any wrongdoing.  After the trial, several of the jurors asked me why the case had not been dismissed by the prosecutor since the woman’s injuries were clearly self-inflicted. 

I have since wondered why experienced prosecutors could not see what was so obvious to those jurors who had no training in the law.