Child's testimony can be enough to convict in rape

Young victims often must repeat graphic, painful details of the assault several times during the legal process

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Each year, school-age victims from Allegheny County step into courtrooms and recount the details of sexual assaults -- occasionally standing on a chair in order to be clearly heard -- while their accused attackers listen just a few feet away.

Their ordeals may not attract the media attention that often accompanies murder trials, and most of their cases unfold quietly under the public radar. Yet the impact of these crimes is no less powerful on the lives of the children involved, who must negotiate a complex process while facing their attackers and preparing for trial.

During the first six months of 2008, the office of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. prosecuted 143 cases involving allegations of rape or sexual assault of children.

The accused attackers pleaded guilty in 82 of those cases, according to officials in Mr. Zappala's office. All but four defendants were convicted in 49 other cases; prosecutors withdrew charges in 12 others.

Those are the most recent statistics available from Mr. Zappala's office. County prosecutors said those totals and outcomes are generally representative of sex assault cases handled each year in which victims are children.

Often their attackers are once-trusted relatives or acquaintances who operate within the boundaries of a child's world -- home, neighborhood and school.

"When you watch 'CSI,'the perpetrator is the guy with the crazy hair and the wandering eye that's been hanging out in the park,"said Deputy District Attorney Laura Ditka, who heads the district attorney's child abuse unit. "But it's not the pediatrician or the Cub Scout leader or soccer coach."ï¿ 1/2

Or a relative. Fathers, grandfathers, mothers' boyfriends, stepfathers and uncles are commonly charged in sex assault cases. That helps to explain why so many children don't report their behavior, or wait for days, weeks, even years to do so.

"It's hard to call the police on your dad," said Ms. Ditka.

Attacks rarely by strangers

Some children eventually confide in a friend or sibling who reports it to an adult. Some tell an aunt or grandmother, or write about it in a classroom journal.

Some children tell their mothers. But prosecutors estimate that in about 50 percent of cases in which the accused is the mother's boyfriend, the mother will do nothing about it.

Often when a mother's partner is accused, Ms. Ditka said, "There is a persistent and pervasive culture of 'Do nothing. Turn your head. This should stay in the family.' "

When prosecutors learn of such a case and believe the child's account to be credible, "We explain [to parents], there's no reason for them to make it up," ï¿ 1/2she said.

If parents are complicit in ongoing assaults or hindering investigators, the district attorney's office may charge them with endangering the child's welfare.

When a child tells a counselor, teacher, school nurse, social worker, clergy member, day-care provider or pediatrician, these professionals are compelled by law to report it.

Local police and investigators from Children, Youth and Families respond. If the child reports being attacked in the past 72 hours, officials send the child to a hospital for an examination to gather evidence.

Police also interview witnesses, take photographs and collect other evidence, such as bedding, condoms or computer files, and determine if enough evidence exists to support filing criminal charges.

If the accused attacker shares the child's home, CYF officials visit the home and assess the safety of the child and other children who may live there. A child advocate from the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime is assigned to follow the case through court proceedings.

Then investigators set up a forensic interview, a formal session aimed at establishing the particulars of the child's account for legal and medical follow-up.

At A Child's Place at Mercy, psychologists, social workers and child development specialists conduct about 600 forensic interviews each year with 3- to 18-year-olds who report sexual abuse.

They conduct ï¿ 1/2non-leading interviews, beginning with the question, "Do you know why you're here today?" The interviewer encourages the child to use his or her own words to recount what happened.

If the child mentions a sex assault, the interviewer asks the child to identify body parts, using his or her own vernacular. The interviewer tries to get kids to articulate what body part was touching what body part, sometimes using a doll or a diagram -- information prosecutors need to determine if criminal charges are appropriate.

The information children share is rarely as concrete or complete as police and prosecutors would prefer. What kids say is not confidential, because lawyers can subpoena reports and use them in court.

Assailants 'groom' victims

"We don't guide them to it. We don't suggest names or acts,"said Joan Mills, manager of the center. "We're trying to maintain neutrality. Do we think every case is a case? No. Does every kid disclose? No. Sometimes the threats are too real or the timing isn't right."ï¿ 1/2

Sometimes, the interviews expose calculated "grooming" -- a precursor to many child rapes -- by adults who gain their victims' trust by lavishing attention or offering candy, money, rides or favors. They ask children to keep the gifts secret from their parents.

If the children comply, the adults may provide alcohol or drugs before slowly attempting physical intimacy. If no information leaks, they'll venture still further.

"In a perfect world, victims give their account one time for the authorities" at the forensic interview, Ms. Ditka said.

But most child victims must repeat those graphic, painful details again.

During a child's first court appearance at a preliminary hearing, the accused attacker usually looks on from a few feet away, wearing jail garb and sometimes shackles. The child may stand on a chair or strain to be heard from the witness stand.

"It's hard to explain to a kid, 'We believe you. And you have to tell your story [again],' "ï¿ 1/2said Ms. Ditka.

But judges usually hold these cases for trial when children show up and testify, she said.

Child victims then will likely be required to go through their accounts again while preparing for trial with prosecutors who ask tough questions.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys prep their clients as well.

When confronted with DNA evidence, an effective witness or incriminating Internet files, defendants often opt to plead guilty. But if a victim delayed filing a report or provided a vague time line of events, or police uncovered no physical evidence, a defendant is more likely to go to trial.

"I've never had a client who will admit to me that they did it," said Michelle Collins, an assistant public defender who has represented many child rape defendants in Allegheny County. "You almost never know if they did it."ï¿ 1/2

Preparing defendants

Prior to court proceedings, she instructs defendants on how to dress and present themselves. "I tell them to cover any tattoos, take out their earring if their ear is pierced."ï¿ 1/2

Defense attorney Frank C. Walker II said defendants must be particularly cautious about their behavior during jury selection. When court employees read the charges, "You can see the faces on the potential jurors -- they're contorted," Mr. Walker said.

"They'll come up and say, 'I don't want anything to do with that guy. He's a kiddie rapist or she's a kiddie rapist.' "ï¿ 1/2

Other potential jurors will seek to disqualify themselves, saying they don't believe they can be fair during deliberations because they were the victims of mostly unreported child sex assaults. About one person in every panel of 35 potential jurors will disclose this for the first time, often while weeping, county prosecutors said.

When the trial opens and the judge reads the charges, Mr. Walker tells clients, "Don't shake your head. Look stoic. You're innocent until they say you're guilty."ï¿ 1/2

Ms. Collins instructs clients to look straight ahead and make no aggressive responses, regardless of what witnesses say about them. After hearing testimony from victims, investigators and, sometimes, defendants, jurors hear instructions from the judge, who tells them a victim's testimony "standing alone, if believed by you, is sufficient proof upon which to find the defendant guilty."

The judge also tells them the victim's testimony does not have to be supported by other evidence in order for them to convict the defendant.

To defense attorneys, this instruction is disheartening because it essentially means anyone can be accused of rape, Mr. Walker said, "and if a jury believes them, you're guilty."

But in an era of crime-based television dramas in which plots hinge on scientific or technological twists, prosecutors and others who work with child victims said jurors won't always believe their accounts without corroborating evidence.

"Little people don't know dates. They don't know the calendar that well. They can't tell you the number of times something happened. They don't really know time of day," said Ms. Mills, the manager of A Child's Place.

"If it was six months ago, you might not remember daytime or nighttime, but you remember if you had your PJs on,"Ms. Mills said. "That's why [kids] make the best victims. ... People are less likely to believe them, and it makes court more difficult."

Correction/Clarification: (Published April 8, 2009) A Child's Place at Mercy is the name of an organization that works with children. Its name was incorrect in this story as originally published April 5, 2009 about child sexual assault.

Gabrielle Banks can be reached at or 412-263-1370.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?