More child abuse cases go to trial

July 30, 1995|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon is taking more child abuse cases to trial in what she considers an aggressive stand against such crimes -- but her prosecutors are losing many of the cases.

Ms. McLendon, who took office in January, has highlighted cases for her prosecutors "to go to the mat on," a phrase she often uses to describe how certain cases should be vigorously pursued.

"We're more likely [now] to go full speed forward," said Ms. McLendon, Howard County's first Republican state's attorney. "We're not going to be afraid of a loss if the evidence is there."

This aggressive policy -- described by defense attorneys as simply inflexibility -- could have far-reaching effects on the outcome of child abuse cases.

With about 15 pending cases alleging physical and sexual abuse, the state's attorney's office likely will have many more trials -- risking acquittals in its quest for convictions carrying significant jail time.

The effects of Ms. McLendon's policy can already be seen from a look at the handful of cases brought to court during the first six months of Ms. McLendon's term.

Prosecutors handled 13 cases in Howard Circuit Court in this period, compared with eight cases during the same period in 1994 under Ms. McLendon's predecessor, Democrat William R. Hymes.

All eight cases in the first half of 1994 ended in plea agreements, with none of the defendants receiving sentences of more than three months in jail, according to court records.

Of the 13 cases so far in 1995, seven ended in plea deals and six of them went to jury trials -- and only two of those six trials resulted in convictions, records show.

In the 1995 plea agreements, the sentences ranged from probation to six months in jail, according to records. In the two convictions resulting from trials, one defendant was given probation, but the other was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Ms. McLendon noted that her plea agreements have carried the more serious charges of child abuse or sexual offenses. Plea deals worked out by her predecessor typically saw charges downgraded, for example, to battery, she said.

"I expect in the future that you will see harsher sentences and tougher pleas," she said. "I think we're pushing harder on them."

Mr. Hymes defended his office's record, saying most of its plea deals were approved by victims or their families. He added that ** many cases ended in pleas because victims would not agree to testify.

"What can you do?" said Mr. Hymes, who did not seek a fifth term last year. "At that particular point, the prosecutor's hands are pretty well tied."

Ms. McLendon, though, will take cases to trial even if victims don't wish to testify, if she and her prosecutors believe a trial is a better alternative than seeking a plea.

Ms. McLendon and prosecutors who handle most child-abuse cases believe that by taking child abuse cases to trial, citizens will learn about the issue and the number of these crimes will be reduced.

"If you're ever going to stop abuse, you have to send a clear, consistent message to the community," Senior Assistant State's Attorney Kathi Hill said.

'There's a zeal'

Meanwhile, even with the increased risk of losing cases, child welfare advocates and police investigators in Howard County welcome Ms. McLendon's stand on child abuse.

"There's a zeal that exists that wasn't there in the previous

administration," said Dale Jackson, executive director of the county's Child Advocacy Center.

Sgt. Sandra Regler, supervisor of the Howard County Police Department's child abuse and sexual assault units, said prosecutors now get involved in investigations at an early stage, regularly reviewing cases even before police file criminal charges.

"I see a more aggressive style," Sergeant Regler said of the state's attorney's office. "I'm glad that they're trying these cases. It at least gives a victim a day in court."

But Ms. Jackson and Sergeant Regler acknowledge that the jury is still out on Ms. McLendon's policy, saying it's too soon to tell whether the policy will be able to reduce child abuse in the county.

F: "Ask me that in another six months," Ms. Jackson said.

'Inflexible' style

Defense attorneys, however, say they don't necessarily see an aggressive style in Ms. McLendon's prosecutors. Rather, they simply see the prosecutors being "inflexible," as one defense attorney described them.

"I think they're too frequently looking for punishment rather than a way to make a family whole again," Deputy Public Defender Louis P. Willemin said. "I feel everybody has staked out a position. There isn't really anyone looking out for the family."

Mr. Willemin squared off with Ms. Hill in May in a case alleging that a Columbia woman and her live-in boyfriend repeatedly beat her teen-age son.

The defense attorney said he attempted to reach a plea agreement that would have put the cases on the court's inactive docket -- meaning the couple would not be prosecuted if they sought family counseling.

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