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Law to Ease Trauma for Disabled Who Testify : Courts: Measure is inspired by a 1994 Ventura County sexual assault case in which a woman with the capacity of a 10-year-old had to face her alleged attacker.

November 01, 1995|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After being sexually assaulted during a stay at Simi Valley Hospital, the 32-year-old, developmentally disabled woman had to endure yet another emotional trauma:

Cross-examination in court by her assailant, who was acting as his own attorney.

So upset at having to confront Victor E. Sumner, the victim, who had the mental capacity of an 8- to 10-year-old, suffered a stress-induced seizure the day after taking the stand.

A new state law inspired by the 1994 Ventura County case could allow some disabled victims to testify outside the courtroom, possibly through closed-circuit television, to spare them the turmoil of facing their assailant.

Authored by state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), the new law is similar to one that now offers the same privilege to crime victims under the age of 10.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will allow judges the discretion to provide special accommodations for disabled victims who testify, Wright said.

Such accommodations include moving trial proceedings to the judge's chambers or rearranging the courtroom to create a more relaxed environment in which the victim testifies; using a victim's videotaped testimony from a preliminary hearing at the trial if further testimony is expected to cause severe emotional or health problems; or allowing testimony by means of two-way closed-circuit television.

"This law gives the judge some flexibility," Wright said. "In [the Ventura County case], the judge couldn't do anything. The victim had to face her attacker because he had the constitutional right to act as his own attorney."

Wright said people with disabilities, particularly those with mental disabilities, are especially vulnerable to crimes and therefore deserve special consideration in the courtroom.

"This would be an emotionally wrenching experience for anyone, but for a vulnerable disabled victim, it is even more cruel," she said.

LeeAngela Reed, Wright's legislative assistant, said that, although the new law's application would be left to the judge's discretion, it probably would have benefited two other victims in the Ventura County case as well.

In addition to molesting the 32-year-old victim, Sumner, a former nurse's aide, was also convicted of sexually molesting two elderly women who had been bedridden at Simi Valley Hospital. One was a 72-year-old woman with a fractured hip, and the other a 73-year-old woman recuperating from heart bypass surgery.

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But Reed stressed that the law purposely gives judges leeway in deciding which victims warrant special accommodations in order to prevent people with minor disabilities, such as a broken leg, from interrupting normal legal proceedings.

"It would be up to the judge's discretion, depending on the severity of the disability," Reed said.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice objected to the law when it was first drafted because of concerns that it interfered with a defendant's constitutional right to face his or her accuser.

"We think that face-to-face contact is essential to the protection of a fair trial, to ferret out the truth of the charges brought against the defendant," said Francisco Lobaco, legislative director of the ACLU's office in Sacramento.

Another concern of both organizations was that the new law allows more victims to testify outside the courtroom and that it relies heavily on the judge's discretion.

"Where do you draw the line?" said Kathy Sher, a lobbyist for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an association of defense attorneys. "It's always difficult for anyone to testify against the accused in a court of law. This is just one more step toward the diminishing rights of criminal defendants."

Lobaco and Sher said that they did not know whether their organizations will challenge the law in court.

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said he expects that few exceptions will be made for those wishing to testify outside the courtroom. He noted that it is rare even for young children to do so.

"It doesn't have the same impact as having someone in flesh and blood sitting in the courtroom," Bradbury said. "So it's a balance between concern for the victim and our need to make sure justice is done."

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Robin Maisel, an attorney for Protection and Advocacy, a nonprofit group that works to protect the rights of the disabled, said that the new law is not intended to give disabled people an advantage in the courtroom. Rather, he said, it is aimed at providing a less intimidating environment where people with disabilities "can testify as cognitively and thoughtfully as any other person."

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