Supreme Court rules on hearsay

January 11, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court narrowed yesterday the options federal prosecutors have for bolstering sex-abuse accusations by a child who may have lied on the witness stand.

Splitting 5-4, the court settled a broad issue over using hearsay -- what one individual said to another out of court -- as evidence in federal criminal trials in general.

But the case that produced the ruling involved child sex abuse, and the decision is likely to have a strong impact on those cases because children often are the main prosecution witness and their credibility frequently is challenged.

The court majority made it more difficult for prosecutors to call adults to shore up what a child said on the stand about being sexually assaulted. If the child told the same story of abuse to adults, but did so after being coached to lie or after being given a reason to lie, the adults cannot be put on the stand to describe what the child said, the majority declared.

The majority conceded that, in many child-abuse cases, "a youth is the prosecution's only eyewitness" and attacks on the child's testimony may make prosecution more difficult. But, it said, it was ruling on a general restriction on hearsay, and it said it was not free to make rules to apply only to child-abuse cases.

The decision came in a New Mexico case involving a long and bitter dispute over custody of a little girl. The father, who had custody, contended that the mother concocted a story that he sexually abused the child, to try to win custody. By the time the child took the stand, the father contended, she wanted to lie in order to stay with her mother.

The father, Matthew Wayne Tome, a Navajo Indian from Mitton Rock, N.M., was convicted on the basis of the child's testimony and that of six adults who said the girl had told them earlier the same story of abuse that she gave in her courtroom testimony.

The case was prosecuted in federal court because the crime occurred on the Navajo reservation. After his conviction, Tome was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors built their case on the theory that the sexual abuse had occurred while the girl was living with her father, and that she told her mother about the abuse while visiting on vacation.

When the child took the stand, she had trouble answering questions about the sexual abuse accusations. To strengthen her story as a key witness against her father, prosecutors summoned her baby sitter, her mother, a social worker and three pediatricians, all of whom backed up her story based on prior conversations with her.

Tome, challenging his conviction in a federal appeals court, contended that federal courts should have barred witnesses from testifying about what his daughter had said after she had a reason to lie.

His argument was based on a federal rule that says other individuals may testify about what was said to them out of court by a witness at the trial, if the story is essentially the same, in order to offset a claim that the witness lied.

The court declared yesterday that this rule allows the out-of-court evidence only if it comes before the witness developed a reason to lie, not after.

The court did not overturn Tome's conviction outright. It sent the case back to the lower court to decide what to do next.

The ruling was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The newest justice, Stephen G. Breyer, wrote the dissenting opinion as his first as a member of the court.

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