Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spare the child--

April is 'Child Abuse Awareness' Month. According to the U.S. Department of Health, there are over 3,ooo,ooo cases of child abuse reported each year.

Right after I graduated from law school, I was hired as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. At the end of my first year there I was rotated along with the rest of the rookie prosecutors into the Juvenile Court Unit, where for six months I handled child abuse hearings on a daily basis. All of the custody, dependency, and juvenile crime cases in the city were exclusively heard in a separate courthouse, appropriately named Family Court. The courtrooms were all designated by letters, and Courtroom B was set aside for the preliminary hearings of adult defendants accused of crimes against minor children.

The "prelim" is a bare bones hearing where the Commonwealth (i.e. the prosecutor) has to prove that enough facts exist to support the crimes that have been charged and to send the case on to trial. The other crucial requirement is that a victim or eyewitness must make an in-court identification of the defendant. The full-length trials would be handled months later over at the Criminal Justice Center by the senior prosecutors from the Special Assault Unit in the main office. Since the Juvenile Unit was located right inside the Family Court building, a few of the newer prosecutors were assigned to handle Courtroom B.

A single judge presided over B Court when I was assigned there. Judge Tama Myers Clark was a former prosecutor herself, and she ran a very formal courtroom. Judge Clark did not put up with the usual defense attorney antics when children were involved. Her appearance resembled a cross between Patti LaBelle and Phylicia Rashad Allen, and she absolutely loved the color purple. By their second week, most of the prosecutors and public defenders who were assigned to her courtroom had already gone out and scoured the local department stores for purple ties and scarves--the thinking being: every little bit helps.

Within one week of being assigned to B Court, I was faced with the first of many challenging cases. The crime involved a man who had severely beat his girlfriend's young son using a leather belt with a large metal buckle. The Defendant was about 6-feet tall, in his late-30's, and easily weighed over 225 pounds. The victim was a thin 9-year old boy named Dante who had been taken to the hospital with lacerations and deep tissue contusions over 80 percent of his body. As bad as his physical injuries were, it turned out that his own mother was supporting the boyfriend. Unfortunately, that situation occurred in case after case during the six months while I was there. The Defendant had not been able to post bail, and had been in custody since his arrest a few weeks before. He had been charged with aggravated assault, child endangerment, and a host of related crimes.

Dante and I were standing over on the left-hand side of the courtroom up at the bar of the court. The Defendant and the Public Defender were standing about 15 feet away over to our right. A sheriff in charge of the defendant's custody was over on the far right side of the courtroom next to the single door leading out into the main hallway. The rest of the room was filled with dozens of defendants, witnesses, other attorneys, and police officers all waiting for their case to be called as soon this hearing was finished. Judge Clark sat up high above it all behind a rich mahoghany bench; a 30-foot Art Deco mural of a father, mother, and two small children walking hand-in-hand down a road towards a distant city served as a backdrop behind the judge.

At the time, Pennsylvania did not allow video cameras or closed-circuit testimony in the courtroom, so the victim would have to appear in the same room as the defendant and visually identify them as the perpetrator of the crime. Whenever a minor was being called as a witness, their competency to testify also had to be established. I had already run through a colliquy with the victim to show Judge Clark that Dante understood the importance of telling the truth and knew the consequences of telling a lie. I started to ask him about the facts of the crime itself.

Hi, Dante. See that person sitting up there in the black robe? That's Judge Clark. I'm going to ask you a couple of questions and she needs to be able to hear all of your answers. Do you think you can speak up loud enough so she can hear you?


Okay. You need to say the words out loud so that nice lady typing on that machine can write everything down, all right?


Great. Why don't we start with your full name.

Dante ______.

Okay. And how old are you?


Wow, you're pretty tall for nine. So you must be in, what, fourth grade?


What school do you go to?


Where do you live?

_______ Ogontz Avenue.

Who do you live there with?

My mom, my sister, and....Jerry.

You're doing just great. What's your sister's name?

Kim. She's six.

So you're the big brother.


Do you see your mom in the courtroom?


(pointing over at his mom sitting in the first row, right behind the defense table.)

And do you see your sister?

Nope. She's at school.

Okay. Do you see Jerry in the courtroom?

(staring at the floor)

Take your time and look around the room. You can just point if you see him.

About a minute passed by, with Dante still staring at the floor.

Do you see that big sherriff standing over there in the blue uniform? He's here to make sure that nothing bad can happen to you so you are completely safe. Just take your time and look around and let me know if you see Jerry.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Defendant turn and look over his shoulder at Dante's mom and give a little smirk. A loud crack rang out as Judge Clark slammed her gavel down onto the top of her bench.

"Counselor (addressing the public defender), you had better advise your client that if I see his eyes move so much as one inch over towards the direction of the witness I will revoke his bail and find him in contempt of court on the spot. Do I make myself perfectly clear???"

The P.D. leaned over and furiously whispered into the Defendant's ear. His head snapped forward and the smirk was now wiped from his face.

Dante was standing with his hands buried in his pockets and his chin practically on his chest. I tried to ask the question a third time and got the same silent response.

The public defender cleared his throat and finally piped up after a moment.

"Your honor, I make a motion to dismiss all charges for failure to establish an in-court identification."

Judge Clark raised an eyebrow and looked over at me for a response.


Now it was my turn to bury my chin in my chest as I looked down at the casefile in my hands and shuffled through some papers to stall for time. Not even my purple tie was going to be much help in this situation.

They had never covered anything like this in law school.