Child witness law draws dissent (Oct 11 2005)


Staff member
Child witness law draws dissent
By Quintin Cushner/Senior Staff Writer

October 11, 2005

A new California law allowing children who are alleged victims of crime to testify via closed-circuit TV has been greeted with praise from prosecutors and criticism from defense attorneys.

Sponsored by state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, ”Cole's Law“ will allow alleged child victims of violent or sexual crimes under age 13 to testify in a separate room on a live video feed, if a judge finds taking the witness stand would traumatize the youth. Both the prosecution and defense could question the witness in the room, but jurors and the defendant would stay in court.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week signed Cole's Law, which takes effect Jan. 1.

Existing California law permits children to testify this way if they were allegedly attacked with a weapon or threatened by the defendant.

Attorney Robert Sanger, who was on the team that successfully defended Michael Jackson against child-abuse charges, believes Cole's Law is unfair and possibly unconstitutional.

”Our system of justice is not perfect, but has been based for 200 years on fair trial principles that include the right to confrontation,“ he said. ”It is true that if someone is a victim of some kind of horrible offense, that person is going to be inconvenienced and is probably going to go through stress. But there are a lot of people who are falsely accused.“

The act of separating the accuser from the defendant implies to the jury that the defendant is dangerous and guilty, Sanger said.

Deputy District Attorney John MacKinnon, who prosecutes alleged sex offenders in Superior Court in Santa Maria, said he supports the bill.

”A lot of young children can be very scared in a large courtroom, and will just clam up and freeze,“ MacKinnon said. ”The goal in the end is to try and figure out what the truth is.“

Santa Barbara County Assistant District Attorney Christie Stanley said her office would use Cole's Law if there was compelling evidence that a child might suffer on the witness stand.

”It's extremely valuable legislation and an important tool,“ Stanley said, adding that defense attorneys routinely challenge new laws on constitutional grounds.

Assistant Public Defender Jim Voysey believes the law as it stands will damage defendants' rights by elevating the importance of the child witness.

”Once you put up that barrier between a jury and an accuser, it changes the psychological framework of a trial.“ Voysey said.

Maldonado, whose 15th District includes northern Santa Barbara County and southern San Luis Obispo County, drafted the legislation after hearing about a 4-year-old San Luis Obispo County child afraid of confronting the man who allegedly molested him. As a result, the defendant was never convicted.

Forty states now have some legislation that allows alleged child victims to testify outside the presence of a defendant.