WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to clarify prosecutors' authority to keep child victims off the stand in sex-abuse trials and let stand-ins relate the child's account of an attack.
A case from Illinois will take the court back to an emotionally charged constitutional controversy over the right of individuals accused of sexually assaulting children to face those children in court. The Supreme Court is expected to act on the case sometime next year.
The specific issue is whether the Constitution's guarantee that an accused person may "confront" his accuser requires a child accuser to appear in court unless the prosecution
proves that the child is "unavailable" to testify.
In the Illinois case, a 4-year-old girl sat in the courtroom during the trial, but she was not called to the witness stand. Instead, the child's baby sitter, her mother, a police detective, a nurse and a doctor testified about what she had told them. .
A state court ruled in that case that, as long as the child's out-of-court statements were given as "spontaneous" comments immediately after the alleged incident of sexual abuse, or were given during medical treatment, other witnesses could relay the story to the jury even if the child could have been available to testify herself.
Last June, in cases from Maryland and Idaho, the Supreme Court had said that there is no absolute
constitutional rule that child victims must go to court to testify in person, but it did not spell out completely the circumstances under which their stories could be put before a jury by a stand-in witness.
The Maryland case involved Sandra Ann Craig, former operator of the Country Pre-School day-care nursery in Clarksville. Although the court ruled against Ms. Craig last year, her case returned to state courts, and the Court of Appeals earlier this month ordered a new trial for her because of the use of closed-circuit television testimony by four alleged victims.
In the Idaho case last year, the Supreme Court nullified a child-abuse conviction because a doctor who interviewed the child took the witness stand to report what the
child had said about her alleged incident. The court said that substitute witnesses may be used only if it is clear that their version of the child's story is trustworthy.
But the court said then that it was not settling whether a stand-in witness may be called in place of the child only when the child was unavailable.
That is the issue it agreed to decide in a case involving Randall D. White of Georgetown, Ill., sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting the 4-year-old girl in her home during the night, while a baby sitter slept. The child's screams awakened the baby sitter, and a man identified as White fled from her bedroom. A final decision in the case of White vs. Illinois (No. 90-6113) is expected next year.