Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

The First Complaint Doctrine

Witness testimonies play a significant role in many court cases. They play an even bigger role in cases involving rape and other sexual assault crimes in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Massachusetts practices the first complaint doctrine.

The first complaint doctrine allows a judge to admit testimony from the first person (complaint witness) to whom a victim told or reported the incident. The testimony of the first person the victim told about the crime can help the jury learn the real facts relating to the sexual assault.

The testimony of the first complaint witness can shed light on the behavior of the victim following the alleged incident, the place or occurrence of the sexual assault, key circumstances surrounding the case, and other observations that are pertinent to the case. The recipient of the victim’s first report of a sexual assault or rape can have a great influence on the jury and the outcome of the trial. A criminal defense attorney can explain the first complaint doctrine and how it can impact your case.

The purpose of the first complaint doctrine is to determine the accuracy, credibility, and reliability of an alleged rape victim' s testimony in a court. Information gathered from a first complaint witness provides evidence for specific and limited purposes, which include:

  • Establishing the circumstances by which the alleged victim first revealed or reported the incident

  • Determining whether the testimony of the first person told about the sexual assault aligns with the alleged victim’s account of the crime.  

In 2005, the first complaint doctrine replaced the fresh complaint rule that allowed multiple persons to testify at a trial regarding what the victim had told them about the crime. However, if there had been a long time between the incident and the revelation of the sexual assault to the witness, the court would limit or exclude the witness testimony because the statements were not fresh or recent enough to be reliable.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court verdict in the case of the Commonwealth vs. King  ended the fresh complaint rule and ushered in the first complaint doctrine, which only allows the prosecution to call the first witness or person to whom the victim confided the sexual assault or rape. Under the first complaint doctrine, the length of time between the incident and its disclosure to another person does not matter. The first witness only can testify to support the victim's credibility and no other factors relating to the case. The prosecution is prohibited from calling other witnesses who were made aware of the incident at a subsequent time.

In recent appeals concerning a sexual assault, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has heard from defendants questioning whether the first complaint testimonies were admissible in court or flawed in some manner. An appellate court will determine whether the first complaint testimony created a miscarriage of justice that violates the rights of the defendant.

One case, is the Commonwealth vs. Gaudy Asenjo. The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review of this case and cited errors. In 2015, the defendant, Gaudy Asenjo was convicted by a Superior Court jury of three counts of aggravated rape of a child. According to the appeal's report, the defendants appeal was based on:

claiming that the judge erred in (1) interpreting the first complaint rule to require the disclosure of the perpetrator's identity to the first complaint witness and allowing a police officer to testify as the first complaint witness; (2) allowing the complainant to testify to multiple disclosures of the sexual assault in violation of Commonwealth v. King, 445 Mass. 217(2005), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1216 (2006), and its progeny; and (3) precluding expert testimony in support of her defense based on battered woman syndrome. We conclude that the essential feature of first complaint evidence is the report of a sexual assault, not the identity of the perpetrator. Consequently, the admission of the police officer's testimony as first complaint evidence was error, which, after viewing the evidence as a whole was prejudicial. We conclude also that the judge erred.

This judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s convictions for three counts of aggravated rape of a child.

If you are facing a rape or sexual assault charge, it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney who can catch errors made by the prosecution or presiding judge so your rights are protected under the Massachusetts Law. Contact a criminal defense attorney, who understands all aspects of the first complaint doctrine and can develop a strong defense strategy that will help your case. Boston Criminal Defense Attorney, Edward Molari can provide you with legal advice that may help reduce the punishment or lessen the charge. He cares about your situation and provides personalized legal services in every case. Contact Attorney, Edward Molari at 617-942-1532 for a free consultation.