Sexual abuse cases involving children will be assigned to the most skillful prosecutors and experienced judges in the District under a new plan announced yesterday that officials say will result in swifter and more thorough prosecutions.
"Everyone in this system has been late in coming to the realization that these cases require special treatment," said U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova. "It's only in the last year or two, as the country has focused on it, that we've recognized the length and breadth of this tragedy. It is the minimum that we could do in responding to the needs of these children."
Under the plan announced yesterday by D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I, sexual offenses against children will be heard by three of the court's most practiced judges, who until now have been assigned only cases involving charges of first degree murder, rape or armed robberies with two or more codefendants.
The U.S. Attorney's office will increase from six to nine the number of elite prosecutors assigned to those judges and they will handle individual sex abuse charges from arrest to trial, diGenova said.
In the past, several prosecutors participated in each sex offense case as it moved through various stages of the court system, a scheme authorities said too often resulted in delays and frustration for child victims and their parents.
"My hunch is that we will see more cases ending in guilty pleas and the cases that do go to trial will have fewer postponements," said David Lloyd, counsel to the Division of Child Protection at Children's Hospital National Medical Center here. "Specialization means expertise. So we're really excited about it."
In another development yesterday, Moultrie said that he has designated two judges to hear only accelerated prosecutions of repeat offenders who have been charged with violent crimes while on probation or parole or with other court cases pending.
Officials in the U.S. Attorney's office said the move will allow prosecutors to increase the number of allegedly dangerous defendants who are held without bond pending trial under the city's preventive detention statute.
Defendants who are held under the statute must be brought to trial within 60 days.
Authorities said yesterday's developments are the benefits of seven additional new judges recently appointed to the backlogged court. As a result of the appointments, Moultrie said 17 judges will hear felony cases, an increase of five judges.
The U.S. Attorney's office will likewise increase the number of felony prosecutors, officials said.
The two judges named to the accelerated, chronic offenders calendars are Tim Murphy and Joseph M. Ryan, widely regarded as the fastest and toughest judges on the court.
Prosecutors said they expect defendants to be more willing to offer pleas when faced with the prospect of appearing before either judge within 60 days for trial.
James McComas, director of training for the D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents indigent defendants charged with the most serious crimes, said yesterday, "We always have been in favor of faster trials, especially for defendants being held without bond."
Authorities in the area of child sexual abuse have long argued that prosecutors here were not sensitive enough to the needs of child victims. In too many cases, they said, the trauma of abuse only became worse by going to trial because children were forced to repeat their stories to different prosecutors and endure long delays.
Under the new scheme, children will only have to deal with one prosecutor. Experts from Children's Hospital will be brought in to help train prosecutors in the developing methods of getting children to tell their often wrenching stories of abuse.
Yesterday's developments come on the heels of recent D.C. City Council approval of a measure eliminating requirements that prosecutors corroborate the testimony of child victims in court.
"The field of child molestation is growing rapidly. There's been just an explosion in training activities," said Lloyd. "Right now, child molestation is about where rape was a decade ago."