Apart from criminal homicide and assault crimes, sex crimes are another category of “offenses involving danger to the person,” which involve severe penalties and lasting repercussions for those convicted of these offenses.

Chapter 31 of the Crimes Code (Title 18) sets forth the vast majority of sex crimes in Pennsylvania. The most commonly prosecuted are these:


Sex crimes rank among some of the most difficult crimes to both prosecute and defend because the circumstances surrounding these offenses almost never happen in public. Generally they occur in a private setting where only the complainant and the accused are present. In that regard, sex-crime trials often boil down to competing versions of what occurred: a true he-said-she-said scenario. But sometimes they may also involve DNA or other forensic evidence.

Whatever the evidence may be in these cases, those accused of sex crimes must be mindful that there are certain things built into the law that the accused must contend with when preparing their defense, which often times might feel unfair and a seeming benefit to the prosecution. These are more or less legal guideposts that set what’s in and out of bounds for trial.

The guideposts are these:

  1. The complainant’s sexual past is out of bounds.

    This is what is known as the Rape Shield Law. Section 3104 of Title 18 makes clear that “specific instances of the alleged victim’s past sexual conduct . . . and reputation evidence of the alleged victim’s past sexual conduct shall not be admissible” in defense of prosecutions of Pennsylvania’s sex crimes.

    Only where the complainant’s consent is raised by the accused as a defense at trial, then the accused may offer evidence of the complainant’s “past sexual conduct with the [accused].”

  2. The complainant’s testimony of what happened is itself enough, if believed, to prove the charges.

    This is sometimes referred to as the “one-witness rule.” Section 3106 of Title 18 provides that “[t]he testimony of a complainant need not be corroborated” in prosecutions for sex crimes.In other words, it’s permissible and perfectly possible to obtain a conviction against the accused putting the complainant on the stand to testify and offering nothing else.

    In a jury trial, there’s an instruction that a jury is given that if the word of the complainant is believed beyond a reasonable doubt, the complainant’s testimony is sufficient evidence to convict. This is a powerful instruction for the prosecution. It goes like this


    The testimony of [name of victim] standing alone, if believed by you, is sufficient proof upon which to find the defendant guilty in this case. The testimony of the victim in a case such as this need not be supported by other evidence to sustain a conviction. Thus you may find the defendant guilty if the testimony of [name of victim] convinces you beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

  3. The complainant’s failure to make a prompt complaint is not required.

    When the complainant delays in leveling allegations of sexual misconduct against the accused, the accused certainly may highlight as much to call into question the reliability of the complainant’s delay complaint. There’s a jury instruction that speaks of “the assurance of reliability accompanying [a] prompt complaint or outcry” that one would ordinarily expect under such circumstances.” However, the law is clear that evidence of a delayed complaint does not necessarily make the complainant unreliable.

    Section 3105 of Title 18 states that “[p]rompt reporting to public authority is not required,” and the accompanying rule of Section 3106 reaffirms that “[t]he credibility of a complainant . . . shall be determined by the same standard as is the credibility of a complainant of any other crime.”

  4. The complainant does not need to resist.

    “No” is enough. A lack of consent is enough. The days where the prosecution was required to prove the complainant’s resistance to their attacker is the relic of a bygone era. Pennsylvania law is clear: “The alleged victim need not resist the actor” in order to sustain a conviction for a sex crime.

  5. Expert testimony is permitted to assist in understanding “victim responses to sexual violence.”

    As of August 28, 2012, the Pennsylvania legislature provided both the prosecution and the defense a new tool in their tool kit in trying sex crimes. It’s Section 5920 of the Judiciary Code (Title 42), which permits the use of expert testimony in the prosecution of sex crimes under Chapter 31 of the Crimes Code.

    While the law by its terms equally applies to the prosecution and the defense, practically speaking this law is more frequently used by the prosecution to its advantage, and it’s a powerful tool particularly in those cases where DNA or other forensic evidence isn’t available at trial. Essentially, in those one-witness cases where it’s the complainant word against the accused’s, experts may be qualified to educate the jury on the following topics:

    • Why some victims of sexual violence promptly complain and why some delay.
    • Why some victims of sexual violence have clear memories and other don’t.
    • Why some victims of sexual violence have lingering physical, mental, and emotional reactions and others cope quite well.
    • Why some victims of sexual violence may have continuing relationships with their assailants afterward and others cut off all ties.

    The topics are really endless because the varied “responses to sexual violence”—which these experts may testify to—are endless because no two victims are alike. In this way, therefore, the ability of the prosecution to call an expert in this regard has the tendency to validate and bolster the credibility of any particular complainant’s actions and testimony. Effectively, no response is outside the norm.

    The consequence then of all of this is what was once merely a one-witness case turns into a one-witness case bolstered by expert validation—an expert confirming for the jury that all of the complainant’s behaviors are valid and normal. While Section 5290 certainly prevents the qualified expert from giving an “opinion regarding the credibility of any other witness, including the victim,” this law in application certainly has that look and feel of affirming the complainant’s words and deeds.

If you or a loved one is charged with a sex crime, call Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer, Ryan H. James, who has tried and argued these cases with successful results. Attorney James can be personally reached at 412-977-1827, or by e-mail at ryan@rhjameslaw.com