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Justices Shield Child Victims in Abuse Cases : Judiciary: Supreme Court rules that officials and family may testify in their place. Also, local government gains flexibility in prison overcrowding cases.

January 16, 1992|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave prosecutors an important edge in child abuse cases Wednesday, ruling that doctors, police officers or family members who talk to an abused child may testify in the child's place during a trial.

In a second ruling favoring the government, the high court Wednesday made it easier for cities and states to escape the demands of strict court orders aimed at easing prison overcrowding.

And in a third decision, the court cleared the way for deportation to Britain of Joseph Doherty, an Irish Republican Army member convicted of murder and sentenced to life in a British prison.

In the child abuse issue, the court threw out a requirement that young victims must testify in court if they are able to do so.

Instead, the justices ruled unanimously that doctors and nurses who examine an abused child or witnesses who hear "spontaneous" accounts by children can speak for them in court.

Criminal defense lawyers said that they fear the ruling could permit adults to testify convincingly about a child's confused recollections. But other lawyers said that the decision will prevent some abused children from suffering the second trauma of having to be questioned on the witness stand.

In California, Deputy Atty. Gen. Janet G. Bangle questioned whether the ruling will have a broad impact. "Normally the child is the best witness. It is unusual for the child not to be called," she said. Unlike most other states, California does not generally allow hearsay testimony by doctors and nurses.

Thomas J. Havlena, a lawyer with the Orange County public defender's office, said the ruling infringes on the right of the accused to face his accuser.

"It doesn't enhance the truth-seeking ability of the courts," he said, citing the McMartin child abuse allegations in Los Angeles, which showed that false accusations can "take off" and perpetuate themselves, he said.

"It's disturbing because it allows hearsay into the courtroom," Havlena said, when the jury should be allowed to see and hear the witness and watch the body language.

Many worry about defense attorneys twisting and cajoling child witnesses in court, he said, but anyone who has contact with the child could influence what he says.

Jan C. Sturla, an Orange County deputy district attorney who prosecutes child abusers, welcomed the decision, noting that California rules of evidence already allow police, parents or others to testify about a child's "spontaneous" accounts of assault or abuse. But he said the Supreme Court ruling officially declares the rules constitutional.

Sturla said the hearsay exception is particularly important in child abuse cases, because often the child is too young or emotionally unable to testify in court. Without the testimony, there would be no way to establish that a crime had occurred.

Westminster Police Lt. Andrew Hall agreed with Sturla, saying he is "delighted" with anything that eases the suffering of a child who has been abused or assaulted.

"It is a good deal and definitely necessary," Santa Ana attorney Harold F. La Flamme said. "It is a hard thing for the child to go into court and testify, sometimes against a parent."

La Flamme, who specializes in children's rights, called it a "child-friendly" ruling.

In the prison-overcrowding case, the justices said in a 6-2 vote that "changed circumstances," including tight budgets, can be grounds for modifying earlier court orders.

The ruling, in a long-running lawsuit over jail conditions in Boston, is consistent with the Supreme Court's recent efforts to limit the power of federal judges and return more authority to city and state officials.

Repeatedly, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has stressed that prisons should be run by prison managers, not federal judges.

Civil rights attorneys, however, fault the high court for ignoring the violations of constitutional rights that have led to judicial intervention in the first place.

In 1979, Boston officials had agreed, as a condition of settling a lawsuit, to build a new jail with separate cells for persons who are held until their trials.

But three years ago, the sheriff of Suffolk County, which includes Boston, asked to have the court order modified so that two inmates could be placed in each cell of the new jail, citing an "unforeseen increase" in the jail population.

The federal judge who oversaw the consent order, backed by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, said that the local government must abide by its deal.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however. In a 6-2 decision, the justices said that the unexpected overcrowding and tight city budgets are good reasons to modify such a court order.

Judges "should exercise flexibility," Justice Byron R. White advised. They "should surely keep the public interest in mind," he added, which may require that two inmates be put into each cell.

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