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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ind. Decisions - "Molesting conviction tossed because of girl's silence" [Updated]

So reads the headline of a brief story the Indianapolis Star posted late this afternoon on the Supreme Court's decision today in the case of Ronald C. Howard v. State of Indiana (see ILB summary here). Some quotes from the story:

The Indiana Supreme Court today reversed the child molestation conviction of a Noblesville man because the alleged victim refused to testify during the trial.

Ronald C. Howard Jr., 41, had been serving a 35-year sentence for a November 2003 conviction on one count of felony child molestation. He now likely will face a retrial in Hamilton County.

Howard had been accused of molesting a 4-year-old girl over a one-year period that began in 1996. Howard was charged in 2002, after the girl told a counselor she had been abused.

During the trial, the girl, then 12, broke down on the witness stand and refused to testify. Hamilton Superior Court Judge Daniel Pfleging subsequently allowed a deposition, taken from the girl before the trial, to be admitted into evidence.

The Indiana Supreme Court overruled that decision, saying Howard had a Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser and that state law required a medical or psychological evaluation of the girl before it could be determined she was unable to testify.

[Updated 9/7/06] Bill Ruthhart of the Star has a more detailed report this morning. Some quotes:
During the 2003 trial, the girl, then 12, broke down crying when she took the stand and refused to testify. Hamilton Superior Court Judge Daniel Pfleging then allowed a deposition, taken from the girl before the trial, to be admitted into evidence.

The Supreme Court overruled that decision Wednesday, saying Howard had a Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser and that state law required a medical or psychological evaluation of the girl before it could be determined that she was unable to testify.

"The Supreme Court is saying that the right to confront your accuser is so important that before you allow even a child witness to be excused from the stand, you have to have specific findings," said Indianapolis attorney Jack Crawford, who argued Howard's case on appeal.[*]

"The court had to have psychological or medical findings that the child just couldn't go on, and those weren't made."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp was disappointed with the decision.

"If the Supreme Court could have seen this poor little girl who completely disintegrated on the witness stand," Leerkamp said. "It was a heart-wrenching situation."

During the trial, Pfleging held an hourlong recess to give the girl a chance to calm down, but she continued to cry, vomited and refused to testify. No psychologist or doctor was called to evaluate her.

"The Supreme Court ruled that this child victim just being upset wasn't enough," Crawford said.

Leerkamp said the girl met with two psychologists before the trial, and both were confident she could testify because she handled the deposition well.

The Supreme Court's opinion said a deposition still could be used in place of courtroom testimony if a physical or psychological evaluation showed the child was incapable of taking the stand. That reassured Candes Shelton, president of the Indiana Children's Coalition.

"That child needs their day in court, too," Shelton said. "If they're unable to be in a fishbowl like that, that should not take away their right to testify against someone who has been accused of a crime."

As a result of Wednesday's decision, Howard will be moved from the Pendleton Correctional Facility to the Hamilton County Jail. After that, he'll face two trials.

In an unrelated case, Howard has been charged with four counts of child molesting and one count of attempted sexual battery; three children, ages 5 to 9, told police he abused them in 2000. That case, which had been delayed pending the Supreme Court's decision, is set for trial Oct. 3.

When Howard's first case is retried, the girl would be at least 15 years old and more than 10 years removed from when she says the abuse occurred.

"I do too many of these cases, and it breaks my heart to think we'll have to put her back on the witness stand and retry the case," Leerkamp said. "But I believe in her, and I believe he did it."

________________
[*] Attorney Jack Crawford represented the defendant in this case. The case turned on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2004 decision in Crawford v. State of Washington -- no relation.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 6, 2006 06:42 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions