Curran calls for change in TV testimony

March 04, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- A Maryland Court of Appeals ruling has turned the state's law allowing closed-circuit television testimony into a way to further traumatize young sex abuse victims, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. told a Senate committee yesterday.

The April 1991 ruling seems to indicate that a child must first break down in front of a defendant before a judge can allow TV testimony, Mr. Curran said.

However, a bill before the General Assembly (SB 333) would give judges power to authorize TV testimony after interviewing the child privately, or on the basis of testimony from parents and psychiatrists.

"We're trying to save the child from trauma," Mr. Curran told the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It makes, in my mind, not a lot of sense to have the child break down first."

Closed-circuit testimony became legal in Maryland in 1985. The idea was that children are often disturbed by being forced to face in open court those who are accused of having abused them. But TV testimony is not widely used, primarily because of confusion over the current law.

The law was challenged after Howard County day-care operator Sandra Craig was convicted of child sexual abuse in a 1987 trial that relied on testimony broadcast on closed-circuit TV.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the verdict, but the Court of Appeals reversed it in 1989, saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to face his or her accusers.

Mr. Curran then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state's law. The court ruled 5-4 that defendants are not always entitled to face-to-face confrontations with their youthful accusers, but that the exceptions must be based on individual cases.

The Supreme Court left it to the Maryland court to set specific guidelines for closed-circuit television testimony. In an April 1991 decision, the Court of Appeals determined that the judge must first interview the child, preferably in the defendant's presence.

"It [an interview in the defendant's presence] should be the rule, rather than the exception," Judge Charles E. Orth Jr. wrote in the court's unanimous decision last year. Judge Orth had written in a 1987 opinion that the child "must show more than mere nervousness or excitement or some reluctance to testify."

After the court overturned Mrs. Craig's conviction a second time, the Howard County state's attorney's office decided to drop all charges, primarily because parents were reluctant to have their children testify again.

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