While Howard County prosecutors have not ruled out a retrial for Sandra A. Craig, the Clarksville day-care operator whose 1987 child abuse conviction was overturned yesterday, several people connected to the case expressed fear yesterday that another trial could be traumatic for the children.
Assistant State's Attorney Kate O'Donnell, who prosecuted Mrs. Craig, said the five children who testified that they were sexually abused by the day care operator were terrified of confronting the defendant in the courtroom four years ago.
"In my opinion, there is no way the children could have testified in front of the defendant," Ms. O'Donnell said.
"They were incredibly scared of the woman. She was very intimidating to them. Even adult witnesses in the courtroom had trouble doing it," she said.
The Maryland Court of Appeals, in ordering a new trial, said the trial judge should have interviewed the child witnesses, ages 4 to 8, before he allowed them to testify over closed-circuit television.
Instead, the judge, Raymond J. Kane Jr., relied on the opinions of therapists in permitting the children's closed-circuit television testimony.
The state's highest court said it should be "the rule" rather than the exception that the judge's interrogation of the children occur in front of the defendant whenever possible.
The appellate court also indicated that there should be two-way closed-circuit television in those instances where children are questioned out of the courtroom so they could see the defendant over a monitor as well as having the defendant see them on a television screen in the courtroom.
Mrs. Craig, the former owner of Craig's Country Pre-School, described herself as "overjoyed" at the reversal of her conviction, which carried a 10-year prison term.
Mrs. Craig, 44, said at a press conference in the Baltimore offices of her attorneys, William H. Murphy Jr. and M. Cristina Gutierrez, that the charges against her were the result of "mass hysteria."
She said she was prepared to go to trial and expected "to win, although a trial will have a devastating impact on the children and their families and on me and my family."
Mrs. Craig, who is unemployed and lives in New Jersey, said she was financially strapped and needed contributions to pay her current attorneys.
She said she lost her job as a restaurant manager because she had to make regular trips back to Maryland involving her case, when it went before the Maryland Court of Appeals twice and the U.S. Supreme Court once.
"Every time I stand up, I get hit at knees and I fall down again," Mrs. Craig said. "I walk around with toothaches all time because I can't afford get my teeth fixed. We are just keeping a roof over our heads and meals on the table."
Dwight S. Thompson, deputy Howard County state's attorney, said he expected his office will make its decision in three to four weeks after talking with the parents of 16 children to determine if they want their children to testify in the retrial or in any of 11 other pending criminal cases against Ms. Craig. All the cases stem from allegations of mistreatment of the children at the preschool, which is no longer in business.
Mr. Thompson said he was "not concerned about the passage of time because the previous trial was recorded" and that testimony could be used to refresh the memories of the children.
Lisa Goshen, executive director of the Howard County Sexual Assault Center, which interviewed the 16 preschool children, said her staff would work with the parents and children involved "to try and figure out what would be best for the children and families."
Ms. Goshen, however, said she did not know of any child abuse case which was retried five years later. "For parents to take on that responsibility for a child just beginning adolescence is a real hard decision," she said.
Dr. Charles I. Shubin, a Baltimore pediatrician who helped draft the law providing the closed-circuit television protection for child abuse victims, was highly critical of the appellate court, saying it had demonstrated "an anti-child bias" in its ruling on the Craig case.
Dr. Shubin, who was a state's witness in the Craig case, said he believed that the ruling by state's highest court had proved traumatic for the children involved because "it tells them that all they went through was for naught."
Mary Ellis Burke, a therapist who had interviewed the children and testified at Mrs. Craig's trial, said she considered it "a child by child issue" in determining which of the children could handle a trial.
"There are and were some children who could handle face to face confrontation with the defendant, but the potential for intimidation is tremendous.
"I know I have a sense of dread, and I think it [the trial] took a heavy toll on everyone involved in it."
Ms. O'Donnell noted that the key witness in the 1987 trial was a then-8-year-old girl, who had attended the Craig preschool and would come home with stomachaches and have nosebleeds.
"After the trial, she saw Mrs. Craig in Columbia and the child doubled over in pain and her nose started to bleed again," Ms. O'Donnell said. "There is no way that she could have confronted the defendant in a courtroom."