A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, citing a defendant's constitutional right to face his accuser, set the stage yesterday for courtroom confrontation between a 4-year-old girl and her father, who is accused of sexually abusing her.
Judge James S. McAuliffe Jr. denied a prosecutor's request that cameras be set up in the courthouse to enable the child to testify without facing her father in the courtroom.
If the child satisfies McAuliffe that she is competent to participate in the criminal proceedings against her father and does testify, she will be the youngest person in Montgomery history to take the witness stand, according to a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. The spokeswoman added that prosecutor Dwight C. Price's request to televise the girl's testimony is the first of its kind in the county and probably in Maryland.
With the increasing number of child-abuse cases coming to light, courts around the country have been grappling with the issue of how testimony should be taken from the children without causing them even more harm. Some child specialists have argued that having the children away from the spotlight of the courtroom and from the alleged abuser will cause them less trauma.
"Truth by any means is not endorsed by the Constitution," McAuliffe declared at the end of a dramatic four-hour hearing on Price's request. The judge added that the Sixth Amendment affords several rights to defendants, among those a "face-to-face meeting at trial" with one's accuser.
If the child testifies in the trial, which is expected to start today and last three days, McAuliffe said he plans to clear the courtroom of all but essential persons: jury members, lawyers, court staff and two adults who are close to the girl.
The trial centers on allegations that the 34-year-old divorced father molested his daughter between March 1983 and March 17, 1984, a period when she visited him on weekends at his former home in Silver Spring. A Montgomery County grand jury indicted the man on one count of child abuse in May; he has pleaded not guilty.
In asking for the testimony to be televised, prosecutor Price said the girl is "very protective of her father" and would be distracted by him and others in the courtroom. By facing his daughter in court, the father would be "in a position to exercise some control by the way he looks at her and holds himself," Price said.
The sensitive nature of her eventual testimony -- discussing "her own body and sex" -- would compound any discomfort or nervousness she might feel in the presence of her father, Price added.
Price also said in response to repeated and pointed questioning by McAuliffe that televising the girl's testimony "satisfies the basic precepts" of constitutional law because she could still be cross-examined and observed on a television monitor by the jury, her father and her father's lawyer.
But Robert Morin, the defense attorney, said televised testimony in this case clearly violated his client's Sixth Amendment rights. "If the state is going to deprive a person of their liberties," Morin said, "the witness has to come in in open court and confront the person they're accusing."
"Only then will she understand they're serious charges, serious accusations."
McAuliffe sided with Morin, saying a "face-to-face challenge" between accuser and accused was essential to determining the veracity of the allegations against the father.