Bill would grant child witnesses special privileges

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 | 6:07 p.m. CST; updated 12:26 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers are considering legislation designed to help child witnesses testify in court by granting them special privileges and restricting lawyers’ behavior.

Rep. Bob Dixon said Wednesday that courts can be scary for adults who understand the process and that numerous states have worked to make children more comfortable.

“I think all of us would agree that children and adults are different, and we should take these differences into account when we put a child on the stand,” he said.

Dixon, R-Springfield, said that when he was a boy, he saw friends intimidated by a defense lawyer while testifying against alleged abuses by those children’s parents.

The measure, called the Children’s Bill of Courtroom Rights, would:

— require attorney questions and an oath to tell the truth be phrased so that children can understand what the words mean;

— consider nap time, school and medication schedules in scheduling testimony;

— bar lawyers from raising their voices or being intimidating and frightening;

— allow child witnesses to have teddy bears, dolls or other comfort objects and a family member or support person in the courtroom during the testimony;

— allow judges to make witnesses more comfortable. For example, a judge could let small children sit on pillows to see over the witness boxes.

A similar bill was filed last year but did not receive a hearing.

The Missouri Bar opposed that version, and former state Supreme Court Judge Andrew Jackson Higgins and MU law professor Doug Abrams said judges already protect child victims and witnesses. They warned that the bill was “potentially damaging to the integrity of Missouri’s courts.”

Higgins and Abrams wrote that last year’s bill was at best “unnecessary because Missouri law already protects the rights and sensibilities of child witnesses. At worst, the bill carries an unwarranted implication that Missouri’s trial and appellate courts have failed to provide this protection.”

However, Andrew Scholz, a Boone County assistant prosecutor, said the legislation is common sense.

“If any attorney would (try to) intimidate a child, I would of course object to that,” Scholz said. He handles most of the child molestation and abuse cases that come to the prosecutor’s office.

Scholz added that any attorney who would employ tactics such as not allowing a child to testify in the company of a parent would be bad lawyering and might hurt that attorney’s case.

He said there are already special child protection hearsay statutes, which allow witnesses to recount statements made by a child younger than 14.

“(This) is a good idea because it’s something we already do,” Scholz said.

Bill supporters and child advocates told a House committee on Wednesday that bad courtroom experiences are more common than good ones.

Lacy Kendrick, 24, of Nixa, told lawmakers that she was asked to testify against her mother and later against her father. Kendrick did not end up having to testify.

“The things I would have to say in an entire courtroom filled with people I did not know was a terrifying thought,” Kendrick said.

Barbara Brown, executive director of The Child Advocacy Center Inc. in Springfield, told the committee that some courts and attorneys are working to help child witnesses but many are not.

“Imagine telling a victim who was blind or hearing impaired their needs won’t be met,” Brown said.

She focused on two similar child abuse cases in separate Missouri counties, in which physical evidence, including a sexually transmitted disease, showed a grandfather had sexually abused his grandchild.

In one case the prosecutor and defense lawyer had experience in working with child victims. The child was adequately prepared and the case was resolved without seriously upsetting the child witness.

Brown contrasted that with a case in which the child was too upset to finish testifying. That’s because her parents weren’t allowed in the courtroom after unexpectedly being handed a subpoena by the defense, which left the grandfather as the only familiar face. Also, the newly elected prosecutor was unaccustomed to working child abuse cases and did less pretrial preparation with the accuser, she said.

— Missourian reporter Sean Sposito contributed to this report.

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