A 24-year-old woman went on trial last week for allegedly raping an eight-year-old boy in Prince George's County simply because police and prosecutors believed the boy's story and doubted the woman's denial.
They remained convinced of the boy's account even though the accused woman passed a lie detector test and even though the prosecutor who took the case to court was unable to interview the alleged victim personally until the morning of the trial.
After a week of testimony, the woman was acquitted of the charge because the jury didn't share officials' faith in the 8-year-old's word. "It's very difficult to put someone in prison for something so serious based on only a child's story," said juror Jill Augustine of Laurel.
But prosecutors said after the trial that a child's story often is the only thing officials have to go on in cases where a child is attacked or abused, and that if they had it to do over again they would handle the case the same way.
"There was nothing unusual about this," said State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. "We would have gone to trial if it had been an 8-year-old girl child. Maybe the jury just wasn't ready for it a rape case in which the victim is a boy yet."
Marshall claims that his office has prosecuted other rape cases and sexual child abuse cases successfully without physical or medical evidence, although offhand he could not cite any.
In most rape cases that go to trial, there is some evidence besides the victim's word: medical evidence, perhaps, or a confession by the defendant or physical evidence, such as fingerprints in an apartment.
However, in Maryland the rape statute does not require corroborating evidence for a rape charge, Marshall said. The supposed victim, in this case a boy called Junior, merely has to identify the alleged rapist and describe what occurred.
In considering whether to prosecute a rape case in which the only evidence is the victim's word, prosecutors generally consider the victim's story and the credibility of the victim.
Although her case rested on Junior's credibility, Assistant State's Attorney Margaret Nemetz, who argued the case in court, did not interview the child personally until the day the trial began. She said she was barred from talking to Junior by his father, who had taken the child to New Jersey and until the last moment was reluctant to have him appear in court at all.
Nemetz based her preparations on interviews with the boy's mother and the police officer who had investigated the case, arrested 24-year-old Mary Conteh and charged her with rape. Nemetz said after the trial that during her interview with the boy she learned of what turned out to be one inconsistency in his account, but she insisted that it was not significant and would not have changed her handling of the prosecution even if she had known of it earlier.
The inconsistency had to do with what was going on at the time of the alleged incident. Junior claimed that he was propositioned while he was watching the Woody Woodpecker show on television, but a television station employe who testified for the defense said the program was not on television that day, and produced a television guide to prove it.
Jurors interviewed afterwards said that this contradiction damaged Junior's credibility, but that even more significant was his mother's testimony that he sometimes denied his actions to avoid getting into trouble, as well as testimony by other witnesses that the boy did not always tell the truth.
Prince George's County detective John Colister, who spoke to Junior before charging Conteh, said during an interview that Junior had told him about watching the Woody Woodpecker show on television.
Colister did not check the television guide to make sure that Junior was correct, but said he would have charged Conteh even if he had known that the Woody Woodpecker show was not on television that day.
"It didn't matter," the detective explained. "Woody Woodpecker could have appeared on another program."
Colister said he knew from Junior's mother that Junior sometimes denied his actions to avoid getting into trouble, but the officer felt that such denials were different from making up an entire story.
Colister said he was convinced that the child was telling the truth because the child did not change his story and there were no inconsistencies in his account of the alleged incident. On the other hand, Colister testified at the trial, there were certain inconsistencies in Conteh's story: she at first said there was a friend at her house on the date of the alleged incident, and then said there was not; she said she was married, but she was not.
It was Colister's belief in the truth of the child's account that led the state's attorney's office to give the case to the grand jury for a possible indictment, according to Assistant State's Attorney William Shockley.
But before the case went to the grand jury, Conteh's lawyer, Fred Joseph, hired someone to give Conteh a lie detector examination. Although such tests are not admissable as evidence in court, the state's attorney's office sometimes takes them into consideration in deciding on whether to bring a case to trial, according to Marshall. When Conteh passed the lie detector test, Joseph told Shockley, who said that he informed his boss, Steve Ornstein. Ornstein could not be reached for comment, and Marshall said he was not aware of the lie detector test.
Once the case reached the grand jury, an indictment was almost assured. According to Shockley, it is rare for a Prince George's grand jury to refuse to indict someone who has been charged with an offense.
Joseph says he asked Shockley to allow Conteh to appear before the grand jury, but was refused. Marshall says that the state's attorney's office does not allow defendants to appear before the grand jury
After the grand jury indicted Conteh, the case was assigned to Nemetz. She said she brought the case to trial because, "all we ever have in child abuse cases is the child's word against the adult's."
Nemetz also knew from Junior's mother that he sometimes denied his actions to avoid punishment, but said she felt, as did Colister, that this differed from inventing the whole tale.
In the end, the case went to trial because the state's attorney's office chose to believe the child. As Marshall said: "We were satisfied that he could not make up the story."