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COMMUNITY VOICE

Our courts have undermined justice for child victims of sexual assault

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 11:15 am

Very quietly, over the past five years, Indiana has lifted a corner of Lady Justice’s blindfold and forced her to turn a deaf ear when she sees a child.

Instead of affording justice equally to all, our legal system now refuses to listen to any evidence other than the singular voice of the lone child on the stand at trial.

No corroboration may be offered in support of the child’s testimony, and no amount of courage or credibility demonstrated in the long journey to the courthouse counts, either.

When the victim of a sexual assault is an adult, we trust the competency of medical professionals to communicate their purpose to their patients; we trust trial court judges to balance the probative value and prejudice of evidence; we trust the ability of juries to assess witness credibility. But for children, we do not.

We have erected the highest hurdles, practically ensuring that the best evidence of our most heinous crimes will never be admitted at trial.

On May 2, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Gerald VanPatten and gutted the medical hearsay exception as it relates to child victims. Unlike a competent adult, a child who is found competent to testify is presumed not to understand the importance of telling the truth to a doctor or nurse dressed in scrubs in a medical examination room.

VanPatten is a convicted child molester, sentenced to 40 years in prison for molesting his daughter’s friend. He molested his daughter, too. Repeatedly. But he’ll never spend a day in prison for that.

Unlike her friend, VanPatten’s daughter did not have the support of her family to face VanPatten in a crowded courtroom and tell a room full of strangers exactly what he did.

VanPatten’s daughter did find the courage to tell. She told her mother, she told a DCS worker, she told a nurse and she even told a forensic interviewer in a videotaped interview. She gave graphic details of sexual acts unimaginable to most 6-year-olds, but that’s all hearsay.

Two years later, alone on the witness stand, face-to-face with her father in a crowded courtroom, she did not have the courage to betray him.

At trial, under pressure from her mother as well as her father, VanPatten’s daughter recanted. And even though the jury understood what was happening, what the child said under duress on the stand was the only evidence they could legally consider.

It’s not supposed to be that way. Because she was less than 14 at the time of the trial, VanPatten’s daughter is a “protected person” under Indiana Code 35-37-4-6. The prosecutor is supposed to be able to give notice of child’s statements to defense counsel, make the child available for cross-examination at a hearing and let the trial court judge decide which statements are reliable and may be considered by the jury as evidence at trial. That’s the way it worked when I was a deputy prosecutor trying these cases. But not anymore.

There is one key element missing from Indiana’s Protected Person Statute: an explicit requirement that the trial court balance the probative value of each statement with any unfair prejudice to the defendant under Indiana Rule of Evidence 403.

Rather than reading the statute to incorporate this basic rule of evidence, the Indiana Supreme Court decided that prosecutors must decide between the child’s live testimony at trial and a recorded statement taken soon after the event occurred. See Tyler v. State, 903 N.E. 2d 463 (Ind. 2009).

The decision came as a complete surprise to the legal community, including those prosecutors who handled the case.

No one had raised the issue, no one had briefed the issue and no one had anticipated such unwarranted judicial activism.

In 2010, our Indiana Appellate Court went a step further, overturning a child molester’s conviction because it was based solely on a reliable recorded statement properly vetted through the Protected Person Statute. See Cox v. State, 987 N.E.2d 874 (Ind.App. 2010, , transfer denied 950 N.E.2 1198)

In other words, no matter how many reliable statements the child has given to a friend, trusted adult, professional interviewer or medical professional, the only thing that counts is what the child says on the stand at trial.

While those professionals who work with children have made great strides in ensuring the reliability of the evidence gathered and preserving it in a ways that assist judges and juries to determine independently the credibility of the child witness, our appellate courts have completely eviscerated our Protected Person Statute, significantly undermining justice for child victims of sexual assault.

There are, however, two simple solutions.

The legislature has the power to revise our Protected Person Statute so that it explicitly incorporates Evidence Rule 403, thus addressing the concerns raised in the Tyler, Cox and VanPatten cases.

Or the Indiana Supreme Court could expressly overrule the Tyler and Cox cases and allow our Protected Persons Statute to work the way that it is supposed to, allowing juries to hear all of the reliable evidence in these difficult cases.

Laurie A. Gray, JD, is a former Allen County Deputy Prosecutor and the founder of Socratic Parenting LLC. She serves as a bilingual forensic interviewer at the Dr. Bill Lewis Center for Children and as an adjunct professor of criminal sciences at Indiana Tech.