October 19, 2014

Amendment 2 asks whether child sex defendants' past acts can be used against them at trial

The real question here is, treating sex crimes differently than other crimes, when there is no proof or research that any specific crime type, has a higher rate of unprosecuted crimes than any other crime type? A BELIEF is not proof of the truth of the statement!
10-19-2014 Missouri:

In August, the Missouri Supreme Court swept away one of the last vestiges of a centuries-old legal doctrine that the testimony of sex-crime victims could not be trusted. On Nov. 4, Missouri voters are being asked to make an exception to another long-standing rule, in place for more than 100 years.

The Missouri Constitution currently bars testimony that past acts show propensity — that the accused is likely guilty of the same crime again. Amendment 2 would alter that rule in cases involving child sexual abuse, including allowing testimony about crimes that were never charged.

Supporters argue the exception is necessary because pedophiles often have more than one victim, many of whom remain silent for years as they endure abuse in a family setting.

“From our perspective, we fully believe most sexual predators began their work as teenagers,” said Emily van Schenckhof of Missouri Kids First, an organization that provides support for the state’s 15 child advocacy centers.

Opponents said Amendment 2 undermines a basic protection in an area of law that already makes substantial exceptions to the rules that regulate other trials. Amendment 2 does not limit the testimony about other crimes to similar acts, said Michelle Monahan, treasurer of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We think it is one of the most dangerous propositions that has come along in a long time,” she said.

Amendment 2 was proposed by the General Assembly to overturn a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court decision in a case involving Donald Elliston, a Livingston County man convicted of repeatedly molesting a young girl. A law passed in 2000 allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence of Elliston’s conviction for sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl to show he likely was guilty of similar acts with the new victim.

The court ordered a new trial, ruling the law violated the Missouri Constitution. “Evidence of a defendant’s prior acts, when admitted purely to demonstrate the defendant’s criminal propensity, violates one of the constitutional protections vital to the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Judge Michael Wolff wrote for the unanimous court.

The issue that voters must decide is whether sex crimes against children are exceptional cases that require different rules.

Each year, Missouri’s 15 Child Advocacy Centers conduct about 7,500 forensic interviews with children younger than 18. More than 75 percent of the interviews concern alleged sexual abuse. Each interview is conducted in a neutral manner, observed by law enforcement and prosecutors from an adjoining room and recorded for use in court.

At Rainbow House in Columbia, the Child Advocacy Center has conducted more than 5,400 interviews since opening in 1998. Rainbow House serves a 10-county area of Central Missouri. “We were designed to be the neutral, safe-haven place for that child and family to come so that child can tell the story to all the investigative team members,” administrative director Janie Bakutes said.

The d├ęcor at Rainbow House is child-scaled. The base of the walls feature images of children at play, on skateboards or with tennis rackets and baseball bats. A large canvass covered in colored handprints helps build rapport with the child when they are asked to find a hand that matches their own, Bakutes said.

That rapport is key to making the interview a success, she said. The Child First model employed by the center is designed to allow the child to tell their story but not push them or suggest that they must talk.

“At some point the child is going to talk about it or not,” Bakutes said. “What we mostly find is it is a relief, that the kids know why they are coming in. We make it real plain.”

The forensic interviews are conducted in a spare room with beige walls and beige chairs and a few toys, markers and the like. The design is intended to relax the child with as few distractions as possible. Before the interview begins, the child is shown the room where observers will sit watching through a one-way mirror.

Cameras and microphones are mounted discreetly in the ceilings and walls, and backup power prevents the system from stopping during a storm. All that is explained to the child before the interview begins, Bakutes said.

The design has been created through trial-and-error. The sensational McMartin preschool case in the 1980s, where the owners were accused of molesting up to 360 children, fell apart when video recordings of the interviews revealed coercive, leading questioners were treating children like adult witnesses.

In Missouri, before the adoption of child advocacy centers, investigations of child abuse were often conducted by home visits in response to hotline calls, Bakutes said. The alleged offender often would be there, with the child services worker interviewing the victim in the next room.

“We did everything wrong, and would leave the child because the child would say ‘no, nothing is wrong,’ ” Bakutes said. ..Continued.. by Rudi Keller

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