Wednesday, April 05, 2006

spare the child--(continued)

Dante was frozen in place. With the man accused of severely beating him standing just 15 feet off to the side, most people would feel intimidated in that position, let alone a slender 9-year old child whose wounds were still healing. Our office had already been granted one continuance by the court at a prior listing of the case. If this hearing did not go forward today, the charges against the Defendant would have to be dismissed and he would be released from custody. There was always the possibility of refiling the charges against him at some point if a new arrest warrant could be obtained, but with Jerry’s history of failing to appear for prior cases in the past, he would most likely vanish as soon as he hit the street. At that point, the case might not be brought to trial for years, if ever.

Unfortunately, Dante’s reaction was not an uncommon one. In the week prior to being assigned to B Court, I had the chance to tag along with some of the senior prosecutors to observe how they handled these situations. Naturally, each child is unique and no two cases have exactly the same facts, but the A.D.A. whose files I would be assuming had explained the general theory to me at one point: take the focus away from the perpetrator in the courtroom and the shocking nature of the overall assault, and break the witness’ testimony down into separate, less traumatic pieces. If you were lucky, you could establish a simple chain of facts one link at a time and still make out all of the charges against the defendant in the end.

First, I needed to change the dynamic of things in the courtroom. I shifted over to Dante’s far left side so that he would have to turn completely in my direction, thereby putting the Defendant's looming presence behind his back and totally outside of his field of vision. I placed the casefile on top of the table and knelt down on one knee so that my face would be at Dante's eye level. The courtroom was immense with 30 foot granite walls and there were no microphones, so normally you had to really project loudly for the judge and the court reporter to hear everything. I softened the tone of my voice and was grateful to see the stenographer and the judge lean in closer towards us in response.

The rules of court prevent a lawyer from asking his own witness a leading question, so I couldn't just cut to the chase and ask, So did the Defendant hit you with a belt and cause all of these injuries??? Dante had become mute at the thought of identifying Jerry in the courtroom, so I tried shifting the focus to someone less threatening.

Okay, Dante…I want you to relax and just listen to my voice while I ask a couple more questions. Do you think you can you do that?


Great. Do you see that person sitting behind me in the front row? (I was referring to the assigned detective who had first interviewed Dante shortly after he arrived at the hospital.)

He nodded again.

Terrific. Have you ever seen her before?

He nodded a third time. Judge Clark was giving me a lot of leeway but I still had to establish his verbal testimony on the record.

Okay. I see that you nodded your head but the court reporter over there needs to take down your words, so could you make sure that you say all of your answers out loud?

He nodded again.


Just like that. Where did you see that person before?

At the hospital.

Okay. Is she a doctor or a nurse?

Nope. She’s with the police.

All right. Did you get the chance to talk to her at the hospital?


Were you there visiting somebody who was sick?


Why were you at the hospital?

I was hurt.

How did you get to the hospital?

The ambulance drove me.

Where did the ambulance pick you up?

My house.

What part of you hurt?

It was on the outside.

Where on the outside?

All over.

I see you have a mark there on your arm. (I gestured towards the spot where his stitches had recently been removed.) Did they look at that when you went to the hospital?


Did you have marks like that anyplace else?


Could you point to any other spots where you had marks like that?

He slowly pointed to his other arm, both shoulders, his stomach, his back, his buttocks, his thighs, and the backs of his legs.

Did you wake up that morning with those marks?


Did something happen on the day that you went to the hospital to make those marks?

Dante paused and was silent for a moment. Eventually, he answered.


You're doing just great. Did you get those marks from falling down?


Did something touch your skin when you got those marks?


What touched your skin to make those marks?

He got quiet again and looked down at the floor before he gave his response.

A buckle.

What did the buckle look like?

Dante held his hands in the shape of a rectangle about the size of a deck of playing cards.

It was gold.

So far, so good. Without pausing or changing the inflection in my voice, I asked the next question.

When the buckle made those marks, was it connected to anything?

A belt.

Did the belt fall down off of something all by itself to make those marks?


If there was a buckle at one end of the belt, what was over on the other end?

A hand.

Almost there. I had been gradually building to a quicker cadence with my questions, so that Dante wouldn't hesitiate and dwell on his prior answers.

Whose hand was holding the belt?


Do you see Jerry in the courtroom?

He still held his gaze down towards the floor, but this time he lifted his right arm slightly and pointed a finger over in the general direction of the Defendant.

That was good enough.

I stood up and brought my voice back up to full level as I turned to face the court reporter.

Let the record reflect that the witness has identified the defendant at the bar of the court.

I gently put my hand on Dante's shoulder and felt the knot that had been in my stomach this whole time slowly begin to unravel.

No further questions, Your Honor.

I couldn't relax completely. The hearing wasn't over just yet.