States can shield child abuse victims from the trauma of testifying in open court before their alleged abusers if there is a specific finding that special procedures are needed to protect the child's welfare, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 5 to 4 decision was made in the case of Sandra A. Craig, a Howard County, Md., day care center operator convicted of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl, and appeared likely to result in the reinstatement of Craig's conviction.
The Maryland Court of Appeals had overturned the conviction on the grounds that Craig's constitutional right to confront her accusers was violated by the use of a one-way, closed-circuit television. Several children testified for the prosecution and were cross-examined by a defense lawyer in a separate room; their testimony was broadcast to the courtroom, where Craig remained with the judge and jury.
In an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court said the Constitution does not require face-to-face confrontation in every circumstance, and that "a state's interest in the physical and pyschological well-being of child abuse victims may be sufficiently important to outweigh, at least in some cases, a defendant's right to face his or her accusers in court."
O'Connor said the judge deciding to use the one-way, closed-circuit television procedure must make a specific finding that it is necessary to protect the welfare of the particular child, and that the child "would be traumatized, not by the courtroom generally, but by the presence of the defendant."
However, she said in Maryland v. Craig, the Maryland high court went too far when it threw out Craig's conviction because the county judge who decided the open court testimony would result in "severe emotional distress" had not first questioned the children in Craig's presence or considered the use of two-way television through which the children still would be able to see Craig.
She ordered the Maryland appeals court to review the conviction in light of yesterday's decision.
Maryland Deputy Attorney General Dennis M. Sweeney said "it's a fairly foregone conclusion" that the Maryland court would uphold the use of the televised testimony under the standard set out yesterday.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. termed the decision "a victory for law enforcement, a victory for children and a victory for the child advocates who worked so hard for this kind of law giving protection to children."
Craig's lawyer, William Murphy, said he remained hopeful that the Maryland court would reverse her conviction even under the standards set by O'Connor. "We lost a battle today but the war is yet to be resolved," he said.
Craig, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison but has been free while her case is appealed, said she was "very disappointed" with the ruling.
Faced with a growing number of child abuse cases, Maryland and a number of other states have adopted laws designed to minimize the harm to young children from having to testify in open court. In addition to Maryland, 23 state laws allow the use of one-way, closed-circuit television in such cases; eight provide for two-way systems; and 37 permit the use of videotaped testimony.
But the constitutional validity of such statutes has been in doubt since the court's 1988 ruling in Coy v. Iowa, overturning the use of a screen that prevented two child witnesses from seeing a defendant as they testified against him.
In that case, the court left open the question of whether such procedures would be constitutional if they were based on specific findings rather than a "legislatively imposed presumption of trauma."
David L. Levy, of the National Council for Children's Rights, praised the court's ruling yesterday. "The Supreme Court is trying to walk a fine line between protecting children's rights and constitutional rights, and we think there are plenty of safeguards," he said. "They're requiring vigorous cross-examination and not tampering with other evidentiary rules, and at the same time giving children a breather."
But Justice Antonin M. Scalia, the author of Coy, said in a strongly worded dissent, "Seldom has this court failed so conspicuously to sustain a categorical guarantee of the Constitution against the tide of prevailing public opinion."
Scalia, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens, said that while face-to-face confrontation may upset children, it also would guard against "a child's distorted or coerced recollections."
He said the court was "not free to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of clear and explicit constitutional guarantees," adding, "To say that a defendant loses his right to confront a witness when that would cause the witness not to testify is rather like saying that the defendant loses his right to counsel when counsel would save him."
In another 5 to 4 decision in a child abuse case, the court said a 2 1/2-year-old girl's statement to her pediatrician that her father abused her could not be used at trial. The ruling in Idaho v. Wright stemmed from the conviction of the child's mother, Laura Lee Wright, of lewd conduct with a minor.
The court, in an opinion also written by O'Connor, said use of the hearsay statement violated Wright's rights under the Confrontation Clause because there was no guarantee the statement was trustworthy.
But she said the Idaho Supreme Court, which also ruled against the use of the testimony, went too far in saying the testimony could not be used because the physician failed to videotape the interview and used leading questions.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White and Harry A. Blackmun, said in testing whether the out-of-court statements should be admitted, judges should be allowed to focus on whether other evidence backs up the statement, rather than be limited to focusing on the specific circumstances in which it was made.
In other action yesterday, the court made it more difficult for environmental groups to sue in federal court to challenge administration programs. Ruling 5 to 4 in Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, the court threw out a lawsuit by the environmental group fighting the Interior Department's plans to open million of acres of public land in the West and Alaska to mining activities.
The court also upheld the death sentences imposed on two Arizona men in a pair of 5 to 4 decisions.
In Walton v. Arizona, the court upheld a provision of the Arizona death penalty statute requiring judges to impose capital punishment on those convicted of murder if they fail to prove the existence of mitigating circumstances "sufficiently substantial to call for leniency."
The court said another provision of the law, allowing captial punishment in cases where the crime was "especially heinous, cruel or depraved" was not unduly vague.
The opinions drew some of the sharpest dissents of the term. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. accused the court of "cavalier" application of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Blackmun said the court was engaging in "a parody of constitutional adjudication." And Justice Stevens said a separate opinion by Scalia in one of the cases endorsed a "reactionary position."
Staff writer Paul W. Valentine contributed to this report.