Parents protest ruling Slain boy's family, barred from court, fight for access

'Our lives were on trial'

Panel unlikely to overturn verdict, could issue advisory

November 22, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Crofton couple paced a corridor and drank sodas in a conference room for a week while down the hall in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse, the man accused of killing their 17-month-old son, Nicholas, was on trial.

"It was tortuous. Really, it was very frustrating," Scott Alford said of that week last month when he and his wife, Karla, were barred from the courtroom.

They want no other parent to have to endure the same. With legal help from the lobbyist for the state's largest victims' rights advocacy group, the Alfords have asked the state's intermediate appellate court to rule that the judge erred in barring them from a trial so important to them.

This is only the second time that victims or their survivors in Maryland have asked to file a victims' rights appeal in a criminal case, said Russell P. Butler, the couple's attorney. He is also a lobbyist for the Stephanie Roper Committee and lawyer for the Stephanie Roper Foundation.

Victims' advocates hope to set a legal precedent for how judges balance defense and victims' interests in their courtrooms.

The couple felt they were denied justice twice.

After testifying Oct. 5, they were kept from the courtroom. Then, on Oct. 16, Circuit Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. found Zenon Cantu Jr., 26, of Pasadena, the Alfords' nanny's fiance, not guilty in the baby's death.

"There is nothing that can change that outcome. On behalf of other victims and based on the way we felt for being kept out of the courtroom, we're doing this," said Scott Alford, 37, a sales manager for an office equipment company.

"We felt like our lives were on trial," he said. "They were talking about us. They were talking about our son. And we were sitting in the hallway being taunted by the defendant's family."

The trial was notable not only for its sadness, but for animosity between the Cantu and Alford families that required extra deputies.

Laws adopted in the past two years allow victims to be present in court after testifying, provided certain conditions are met. After Cantu's lawyer said he might call the Alfords as defense witnesses, Heller excluded the couple. They were not recalled to testify and came in only to hear closing arguments.

"What we are going to try to do with the Cantu case is create some case law whereby judges will not be afraid of allowing victims and their representatives to remain in the courtroom, even though they may later testify," Butler said. "It is a case which could very well help innumerable numbers of victims in the future."

Letting the couple hear medical examiner testimony would not have affected the defendant's right to a fair trial, he contended.

Since they were not part of the case, the Alfords have asked the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to let them appeal because they were aggrieved. Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee joined the request. The appellate court will decide whether to hear the case.

While victims' rights advocates praised the move, others see it as a misguided effort to assuage victims who should seek catharsis elsewhere.

"All this monkey business started when we said witnesses have rights. We are passing feel-good legislation for political reasons," said Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent J. Femia, who hears cases in retirement.

'Where do you draw the line?'

Cantu's lawyer, T. Joseph Touhey, said he was "perplexed" by the petition to appeal.

"[Alford] is singing in the wrong church, as far as I am concerned," Touhey said. "How is it to be rectified? Where do you draw the line here?"

Because a second trial cannot take place, the issue is moot, he said. This would be an advisory ruling, which courts usually ignore.

In 1995, Butler won in another victims' rights appeal. The Maryland Court of Appeals clarified the law that allows victims and their representatives to address a sentencing judge. The state's highest court turned down relatives' pleas for a new sentencing for a Baltimore County drunken driver who killed a man and his nephew, but directed that judges must hear victims' remarks.

'What I thought was right'

Heller said Friday that while he believed he ruled correctly, an appellate opinion probably "would be helpful to me and other judges."

"Certainly, the statute in Maryland is one where there isn't a whole lot of help in case law to guide judges. I did what I thought was right in terms of the application of the laws in this particular case," Heller said. "There is the defendant, he has rights. There are victims, they have rights. They are competing rights. Someone -- the arbiter, the judge -- has to make a conclusion."

Heller concluded that the state did not prove its case against Cantu. The defense contended that several people -- the Alfords included -- could have delivered the two blows to the back of the head that killed Nicholas.

The parents testified they found Nicholas dead in his crib at 9: 30 a.m. Jan. 14. Cantu had put the baby to bed with a bottle the previous evening.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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