Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Confrontation of Child Victim-Witnesses - A Constitutional Alternative?

So we all know that the 6th Amendment guarantees the accused, in every criminal prosecution, the right to be "confronted with the witnesses against him," and to have "meaningful and effective cross-examination."  Building on this principle, the Supreme Court more recently emphasized in Crawford that "testimonial statements" of a witness who did not appear at trial should NOT be admitted unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant has had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.  541 U.S. 36 (2004).

But do the prohibitions of Crawford apply equally to the testimony of child victims in Texas?  Well, it's hard to say.  The short answer is Yes, but there are exceptions provided for in Article 38.071 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.  These exceptions are an effort to balance the defendant's right to constitutionally-required confrontation with the State's policy of protecting child witnesses in sexual assault cases (for instance) from further potential trauma that could be wrought by testifying in open court and coming face to face with the defendant.

In summary, Art. 38.071, which was drafted prior to Crawford, provides child victims (in certain cases) two alternatives to courtroom testimony (if the court makes a finding that they are "unavailable") by allowing them to testify:

  • Pursuant to Section 2(b) - to a "neutral" third party (usually a child psychologist or social worker) outside the presence of a courtroom, the defendant, or the attorneys involved, so long as the testimony is videotaped.  The defendant is then allowed to submit interrogatories to be asked the child victim in the same manner as the previously recorded testimony.  Neither the defendant nor his attorney is allowed to be present when the questions are asked.  


  • Pursuant to Section 3(a) - in a room other than the courtroom (outside the presence of the defendant) through the use of a closed-circuit television.

While the Supreme Court has recognized that the constitution does not guarantee the absolute right to face-to-face confrontation (see Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836 (1990)), I have to wonder if this "interrogatory"  alternative (Section 2(b) above) to cross-examination is what the Supreme Court meant by "meaningful and effective cross-examination."  While it is a way of recording testimony, it isn't really cross-examination at all.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has not yet considered this issue.  The 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) considered the issue in Rangel v. State, 22 S.W.3d 523, wherein it held that (1) a child victim's videotaped statement was "testimonial" and therefore governed by Crawford, and (2) by providing a defendant with the opportunity to submit written questions, section 2(b) of article 38.071 (i.e. the interrogatory section) serves as a constitutionally sufficient alternative to face-to-face confrontation of witnesses.  The CCA initially granted discretionary review to consider the constitutionality of Article 38.071, section 2(b), but later dismissed as improvidently granted.

The 7th District Court of Appeals (Amarillo) released an opinion last week consistent with the 2nd Court's holding in Rangel upholding the constitutionality of article 38.071, section 2(b).  See Coronado v. State HERE.  Maybe this will give the CCA occasion to consider this issue?