The fresh complaint rule allows witnesses in a criminal trial to testify to a victim’s complaint of sexual assault. State v Hill, 121 N.J. 150, 151 (1990). Generally, the State is permitted to show, in a sexual abuse prosecution, that the victim(s) complained of the act within a reasonable time, to one to whom (they) would ordinarily turn for sympathy, protection or advice. State v J.S., 222 N.J. Super. 247, 250, 536 A.2d 769, 770 (App. Div. 1988).
The fresh complaint rule is a common law exception to the hearsay rule. The rationale for the rule is that a woman who was truly sexually assaulted would naturally complain immediately; however, because of fear and embarrassment, the fact that she did not complain immediately cannot be used against her.
However, the rule carries with it certain limitations and restrictions as to prevent unwarranted prejudice to the defendant. State v Cuni, 159 N.J. 584 600, 732 A.2d 414 (1999). The trial court should make clear that a fresh complaint does not bolster the victim’s credibility or prove the underlying truth of the sexual assault but merely dispels the inference that the victim was silent. Id.
The fresh complaint doctrine is rooted in sexist notions of how the “normal” woman responds to rape. State v Hill, 121 N.J. 150, 170, 578 A.2d 370 ((1990). Because of the fresh complaint rationale, complaints made immediately or shortly after the sexual assault are admissible.
In deference to children’s special vulnerability to be cajoled and coerced into remaining silent by their abusers, courts allow children additional time to make a fresh complaint. State v Bethune, 121 N.J. 137, 143 (1990).
New Jersey Courts recognize that children may be too frightened and embarrassed to talk about sexual abuse, and that it is necessary to be flexible in applying “fresh complaint” guidelines to complaints of children who allegedly have been sexually abused. In J.S., supra at 250, the children reported the incident of sexual abuse to their mother a day or two later. Id.