Court rules school records can be used in abuse cases

March 17, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS JHC ZTB — ANNAPOLIS -- Defendants in Maryland child abuse cases can subpoena school records of children to attack the credibility of alleged victims, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The unanimous opinion by the state's highest court overturned the verdict of a man convicted in Montgomery County of abusing his 12-year-old granddaughter in 1989.

The court cited a section of Maryland law that said school records may be disclosed to comply with a judicial order, provided that parents or guardians are notified.

In seeking to strike a balance between a victim's privacy rights and a defendant's right to a fair trial, the court said, lawyers for the accused may have restricted access to school records, as long as the information is not disseminated.

The court said judges can review confidential or sensitive records themselves or conduct the review in the presence of the attorneys, including those representing the schools, while imposing restrictions to protect their confidentiality.

In the Montgomery County trial, the girl testified she had returned home from the movies and lunch with her grandfather when the man touched her upper thigh and vagina. She alleged that her grandfather, at one point, placed her on top of him and that she felt something penetrate her vagina.

The man denied the charges, saying the girl was lying to side with her father in a dispute between the two men.

Evidence at the trial indicated that the victim's father once had threatened that he would get the grandfather "one way or another."

The man said his granddaughter took his hand and placed it between her legs and later told him, "Now my father can get you."

He said school records would show that the girl had a history of emotional disability that required special education and that the records would damage her credibility by revealing a pattern of behavioral problems.

A jury found him guilty in December 1989 of child abuse but a mistrial was declared on three sexual offense charges when the jury could not reach a verdict on those counts.

Judge Peter J. Messitte sentenced him to an 18-month jail term, all but one year suspended, and two years' probation. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling.

In yesterday's reversal, the high court sent the case back to the Montgomery County Circuit Court, which now must decide whether school records should be reviewed by the judge or by the judge and attorneys.

After the review, the court will hold a hearing on the admissibility of the records the defendant sought.

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