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Limiting the types of evidence allowed in child abuse cases

Posted in Criminal Law on March 28, 2015

In 2010, Darius Clark was convicted of felonious assault and child endangering for abusing a three-year-old boy, his girlfriend’s son. Because the boy was deemed “incompetent” to testify due to his very young age, prosecutors called the boy’s Head Start Program teacher to testify, to provide information as to who had caused the bruises and the swelling on the boy’s face one day. The teacher stated that when the boy was asked who had hurt him, the boy stated it was Clark.[1]

This case reached the U.S. Supreme Court because Clark claims that the trial court made an error in allowing the teacher to provide that testimony. It was an error, he believes, because it denied him his constitutional right to confront his accuser, the young boy. As a result, the court is now deciding whether “out-of-court statements that children make to their teachers about abuse can be used as evidence if a child is unable to testify in person.”[2]

Previously, the court had held that such statements, if made to law enforcement officers, would be hearsay, and thus would not be admissible. Because teachers are legally required to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement, Clark’s attorneys have argued that “teachers are in the same position as law enforcement officials when they question children” in these situations.[3] The Ohio state Appeals Court and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed, overturning his conviction.

In response, the lawyers representing Ohio asserted that the right to confront accusers applies only if (1) it is a government official or one of their agents talking to the child, and (2) the official or agent is talking to the child in preparation for a criminal prosecution. Where teachers are talking to students, he posits, “it’s simply a conversation between a teacher and student;” such conversations are to “protect children from immediate harm and remove them from danger, not to compile evidence for a criminal prosecution.” [4] This is an opinion shared by forty-two other states, citing concerns that to rule otherwise would shield abusers from prosecution.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court in early March and a decision is expected soon.

[1] Ohio v. Clark, ___ U.S. ___(2015).

[2] Sam Hananel, High Court Weighs Limits on Child Abuse Evidence, FindLaw.Com (Mar. 2, 2015).

[3] Sam Hananel, High Court Weighs Limits on Child Abuse Evidence, FindLaw.Com (Mar. 2, 2015).

[4] Sam Hananel, High Court Weighs Limits on Child Abuse Evidence, FindLaw.Com (Mar. 2, 2015).