Bill would allow past accusations in abuse trials

February 24, 2007|By Capital News Service

After hours of debate, the Maryland Senate moved a step closer yesterday to passing a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to present evidence of prior sex-abuse accusations in trials of suspected sex offenders.

"How many kids does a pedophile get to molest before we let the jury in on the secret?" Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County and the bill's floor manager, asked the Senate during the debate.

The measure was given preliminary approval on a voice vote and may come up for a final vote as early as next week. If passed, it still must win approval in the House of Delegates, where similar bills have twice before been killed.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, would let a judge decide whether to allow a jury to hear evidence of past accusations of abuse that have not been proved through a separate court trial. According to Frosh and others, too many cases are being thrown out of court because the law does not allow for such evidence to be provided to the jury.

However, some lawmakers are concerned that the standard for evidence would be lowered too far and that the proposed law could lead juries to convict defendants for past accusations rather than the crime for which they stand trial.

"This bill has the ability to put people who are innocent in jail," said Democratic Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin of Baltimore County. "I am convinced of that."

Zirkin tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment that would set up more specific standards that evidence of prior abuse must meet before being admitted in court.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and public defender, said Thursday that the standard for admitting evidence of prior accusations would still be "much higher" than the typical standard for admitting other types of evidence. According to the bill, the judge would have to agree that the evidence is "clear and convincing" against the defendant before it could be used in the trial.

Still, others are worried that the standard for evidence is too ambiguous.

"It's bringing into question too much judgment on the part of the judge," Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer said after yesterday's session. "We seem to be stepping into a situation where you can have an unfair trial."

Current law allows evidence of prior allegations to be admitted in a limited capacity to show intent or a person's motive for committing a crime. If passed, the new law would allow prosecutors to use this evidence more fully to show a pattern of behavior.

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