The Confrontation Clause and Children as Witnesses

A Supreme Court Decision that Impacts Child Witnesses

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 41, which restricted the use of “testimonial statements” from witnesses who did not testify in court. According to this decision, these statements were only admissible if the witness was unavailable and the defendant had the opportunity to cross-examine them previously. The court introduced the “primary purpose” test, identifying a statement as testimonial if its intent was to serve as a substitute for trial testimony. However, the definition of a “testimonial statement” was not exhaustively defined in the Crawford ruling. Many believed that this decision would hinder prosecutors, especially in cases involving child witnesses.

Attorney talking to a child witness in California

Ohio v. Clark: Clarifying the Use of Testimonial Statements

Recently, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Ohio v. Clark, 576 U.S. _____, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4060, which offered clarity regarding the uncertainty sparked by the Crawford case. This decision has significant implications for the prosecution of crimes involving child witnesses, including cases where the child is the victim and does not testify. Let’s delve into the details.

The case involved L.P., a three-year-old preschooler who, along with his 18-month-old sister, was under the care of Clark while their mother was absent engaging in prostitution. One day, L.P.’s preschool teachers noticed marks on his body, leading them to inquire about what had happened. L.P.’s responses strongly suggested that Clark was responsible for his injuries. The defense argued that L.P.’s statements to the teachers should be considered “testimonial” and therefore inadmissible under Crawford. The state appellate court initially reversed Clark’s conviction, a decision later affirmed by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

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A Unanimous Decision in Favor of Admissibility

In a unanimous decision (although three Justices concurred only in the judgment without endorsing the majority’s reasoning), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of admissibility, deeming L.P.’s statements as non-testimonial. The Court considered several crucial aspects of the case. They concluded that the primary purpose of the teachers’ questioning was not to collect evidence for future prosecution but rather to address an ongoing emergency involving suspected child abuse. Their goal was to protect L.P. from imminent harm caused by an abuser. Therefore, L.P.’s answers were not testimonial and were admissible under the Crawford ruling. Additionally, the Court highlighted the significance of who elicited the statements and where the questioning took place. The fact that the teachers were private individuals, not law enforcement officials, and that the questioning occurred in a school, not a police station, supported the conclusion that the statements were not intended as a substitute for trial testimony.

Implications and Further Scrutiny

The Ohio v. Clark decision will receive careful examination, particularly from those involved in investigating and prosecuting cases of child abuse. This ruling brings greater clarity to the use of testimonial statements in court, ensuring that the rights of both defendants and child witnesses are protected.

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