UPDATE: Missouri lawmakers OK protections for child witnesses

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 9:02 p.m. CDT; updated 9:07 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 6, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers on Tuesday approved legislation aimed at making children feel more comfortable while testifying in court.

The bill would require court officials and attorneys to use words children can understand. Judges also could restrict court testimony to normal school hours and allow children to hold a toy or blanket during testimony.

The Senate approved the legislation 32-0 on Tuesday, sending it to Gov. Jay Nixon. It previously passed the House.

Other provisions of the bill instruct judges to prevent lawyers from intimidating child witnesses and to allow for a "support person" to be near the witness as he or she testifies. A "support person" could not have a legal interest in the case and could not interfere with the child's testimony.

Judges could also decide to change the layout of the courtroom, conduct proceedings in a relaxed manner or hold court outside of the courthouse.

The provisions would automatically apply to witnesses younger than 14, but judges also could apply the standards to those younger than 17. Children accused of a felony would not be covered.

Sponsoring Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, recounted a story of a 5-year-old girl who testified about being sexually abused. Cunningham said that the girl was forced to sit still for more than three hours in a cold chair designed for adults and that she couldn't understand many of the attorneys' questions.

Cunningham said the legislation is needed to protect children who might feel vulnerable in a courtroom setting.

Last year, a similar measure ran into problems over concerns it was unnecessary and could bog down court proceedings.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said he opposed the bill last year but supports it now because the new version lets judges decide the best way to make children more comfortable while still maintaining constitutional protections.

"Lots of discretion is given to the judge," he said. "Every child is different, every situation is different."



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