ANNAPOLIS -- The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial yesterday for Sandra A. Craig, the Clarksville day-care operator who was convicted of child abuse in a 1987 trial that featured closed-circuit television testimony from four of her alleged victims.
That testimony, Maryland's highest court held, should not have been allowed until Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., the trial judge, interviewed the children to decide whether they would have difficulty communicating from the witness stand.
Dwight Thompson, deputy state's attorney for Howard County, said he would have to talk with the victims and their parents before deciding whether to retry Mrs. Craig. But he called the decision "absurd."
William H. Murphy Jr., Mrs. Craig's lawyer, hailed the ruling as "a great victory. It's like we won the playoffs. Now the World Series is about to start. How do you like our chances?"
Mrs. Craig is unemployed and living in New Jersey, Mr. Murphy said.
She "couldn't stop crying and wanting to know if this is it. Is it over?" said M. Cristina Gutierrez, Mr. Murphy's co-counsel.
The ruling is almost a reprise of one issued nearly two years ago that overturned Mrs. Craig's conviction. In that decision, the court upheld Maryland's law that allows child- abuse victims to testify via closed-circuit television, but ruled that the procedures followed in the Craig trial were improper.
Prosecutors appealed the July 1989 decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the case back to Maryland's appeals court.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 1990 that states can shield child-abuse victims from testifying in open court if the judge makes a specific finding that special procedures, such as the television hookup, are necessary to protect a child.
The U.S. Constitution does not require a face-to-face confrontation in every instance, and the psychological well-being of a child-abuse victim can, in some cases, outweigh a "defendant's right to face his or her accuser in court," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority.
She did not insist, however, that the trial judge interview the children before allowing television testimony and asked the Maryland court to reconsider its ruling.
In yesterday's decision, the state court held that requirements for an interview with the judge in the presence of the defendant should not be "jettisoned," but preserved as "an aid to the trial judge." Such an interview should be "the rule rather than the exception," the court said.
It established lengthy guidelines for judges to use in deciding whether to allow television testimony.
Mr. Thompson called the requirement for judges to interview child- abuse victims "outrageous."
"How do they come up with that?" he fumed. "A judge is not a psychiatrist. How does he know? Anything else of a technical nature that comes up, the judge says wait a minute and wants to hear from expert witnesses."
But Anne Bosse, the assistant attorney general who helped prepare the appeals case, said the rulings were "in line" with previous decisions on child-abuse victims' testimony.
Mr. Murphy said, "We knew that our Court of Appeals had the guts and the integrity to say that this woman didn't get a fair trial."