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Parents Jailed for Refusing to Testify Against Son, 25

Courts: Vermont couple cite 'parent-child privilege' to justify silence at rape case inquest.


WILLISTON, Vt. — Arthur and Geneva Yandow have gone to jail in hopes of keeping their son out of one.

The couple refuse to testify at a prosecutor's inquest in a rape case in which the suspect is their 25-year-old son.

The Yandows claim that "parent-child privilege" gives them the legal and moral authority to refuse. So far, the courts and the couple's church disagree.

"My clients are absolutely adamant that they will not testify," lawyer Paul Volk said Wednesday. "They believe morally and based on their religious values they will not destroy their family and betray their son."

Craig Yandow, who lives with his parents and works in his father's construction business, has not been charged in the Feb. 14 attack, in which a woman was raped, beaten and left in the cold, unconscious and half-naked.

A jacket identical to one the younger Yandow owns--blue, with "Saint John's Bay" on the back--was found at the scene. Also, Yandow had injuries "consistent with those a rapist would sustain from a struggling victim," prosecutors said in court papers.

District Judge Edward Cashman jailed the Yandows on March 28 for contempt of court after the couple refused his order to testify. There is no limit on how long they can be held. The judge set a hearing for April 27.

Once it becomes clear that jail won't change their minds, the judge will have to release them, Volk said.

Prosecutors have not said what they hope to learn from the couple.

Craig Yandow's attorney, Andrew Mikell, refused to answer questions about the case or say where his client is now. "He is concerned about his parents' situation," Mikell said. "Until he is charged, it's tough for me to do or say anything."

The state Supreme Court ruled 5 to 0 last month that, because Craig Yandow is a competent adult, his parents cannot claim parent-child privilege.

Similarly, the Rev. Walter Miller, a canon lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which includes all of Vermont, said no church doctrine would allow the Yandows to refuse to help prosecutors.

If the couple were to ask their parish priest for advice, only one answer would be possible, he said: "You'd be telling them to cooperate. This son of theirs is not a child."

But Volk said the Supreme Court ignored a number of legal precedents to the contrary. And he pointed out a section of the Catholic Church's catechism that lays out family responsibilities: "The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order."

Volk said legal precedents in his favor include a 1979 case in which a court in New York state suppressed grand jury testimony of the father of a 23-year-old vehicular homicide suspect, citing parent-child privilege.

But Vermont prosecutors said in court papers that it appeared that New York's highest court overruled that decision in a separate 1994 case. They said courts nationwide "have overwhelmingly rejected the parent-child privilege."

"Nearly all have concluded that the legal system's demand for truth, especially in a criminal proceeding, should not yield to a family's momentary desire for loyalty or harmony," prosecutors told Vermont's high court.

Michael Mello, a constitutional law professor at the Vermont Law School, said parent-child privilege is an unusual argument.

"It presents both dimensions of a fairly new, very interesting and extremely foundational question: the legitimacy of whether there is in fact parent-child privilege," Mello said. "Even if there is not, can a parent's refusal to become a police informant against her son [result in her being] incarcerated indefinitely? It's a family-values issue."

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