Parents to decide on Craig retrial Child-abuse case voided 2nd time, parents due a say.

April 09, 1991|By Norris P. West and Alisa Samuels | Norris P. West and Alisa Samuels,Evening Sun Staff

With the conviction of Sandra Craig having been overturned a second time, authorities say it be will up to the parents of Craig's former charges to decide whether the one-time day-care center operator will be tried yet again on charges of child sexual abuse.

Dwight S. Thompson, deputy state's attorney in Howard County, said yesterday that he and State's Attorney William R. Hymes will meet with parents of children who were clients of Craig's Clarksville day-care center to find out whether they would be willing to go through another trial.

Craig's 1987 conviction in Howard County Circuit Court on charges of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl was overturned on a technicality for the second time yesterday by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The state's highest court ruled that the trial judge who presided over the case should have interviewed four child witnesses, who then were between the ages of 4 and 7 years, before he allowed them to testify via closed-circuit television. Howard County Judge Raymond J. Kane allowed the children to testify that way after therapists told him the children would be traumatized if forced to testify in court.

Last night in his downtown office, Craig's attorney, William H. Murphy Jr., said he was pleased with the Court of Appeals ruling in the Sandra Craig case.

"I feel that Ms. Craig has been vindicated after a four-year nightmare, and whatever happiness that we feel today . . . has to be only a percentage of what Sandra and Michael [her husband] have experienced as a result of this tremendous victory," he said.

When Sandra Craig was informed of the ruling in a telephone call, she "couldn't stop crying and just wanted to know if this was it," co-counsel Maria Cristina Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said she told the now-unemployed woman, who lives near Newark, N.J., that she hadn't read the decision, but said there was a possibility that the state wouldn't pursue a new trial.

The trial costs already have soared well into "six figures," Murphy said. He described Sandra Craig as penniless.

The Court of Appeals overturned Craig's Howard County jury conviction in July 1989, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that decision last July and ordered the Court of Appeals to again hear the case, using more narrow criteria. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 opinion that defendants are not always entitled to face-to-face confrontations with their young accusers.

That ruling, however, did not establish any requirements as to when a child witness should be allowed to testify by closed-circuit communication.

The Maryland high court set those guidelines in its decision yesterday, saying trial judges should interview child witnesses -- possibly in the defendant's presence -- in most cases to determine whether they would face severe emotional trauma on the stand.

"It should be the rule rather than the exception," retired Judge Charles E. Orth Jr., who was specially assigned to the case, wrote for the court's unanimous decision.

Orth wrote that the court had written in a 1987 opinion that the impact on a child witness must be specific "and must show more than mere nervousness or excitement or some reluctance to testify."

He said the standards of a 1985 Maryland law that allows closed-circuit testimony were not met in the Craig trial.

"That's almost saying you first have to traumatize a child to see whether or not he would be traumatized in court," said Lisa Goshen, director of the Howard County Sexual Assault Center, which provided therapists for the children.

Goshen said therapists who work with young victims of sexual assault are more qualified than judges to determine how children would be affected by the tense and threatening environment of a courtroom. "Judges should be relying on people who have expertise," she said.

Although Craig was convicted in only one case, charges technically are still pending against her in connection with the alleged abuse of 10 other children.

"Everybody's going to have to decide what's best for their families," Goshen said, adding that it would be difficult even for many adult victims of sexual assault to go through a second trial.

"You really would have to look at the cases individually, look at the families, look at what's going on in their lives and talk to the children."

Murphy had a different view.

"I cannot blame [the parents] for taking their children's sides," Murphy said. "We understand that you have to take your child's side . . . but this didn't happen.

"There's a kind of hysteria that comes from a parent's legitimate desire to be protective, sometimes it becomes overprotective," he said.

In a civil suit in 1987, 13 families sued Sandra Craig for a combined $1.4 billion, but that was eventually "settled for peanuts," Murphy said. Each of the 13 settled for $900, which was hardly enough to cover the legal fees, he said.

Thompson, the Howard prosecutor, said he could retry the case if the parents agreed. But in an interview last year, State's Attorney William R. Hymes acknowledged that it would be difficult to retry if a higher court ordered a new trial.

"A lot of people have gone through years of therapy," he said in April 1990. "They are at this point settled in their lives. To put them through a traumatic experience like that would be unsettling."

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