Child sex abuse victims don’t need to testify twice, Utah Supreme Court rules

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, makes a comment during oral arguments in the Utah Supreme Court, Friday, September 16, 2016.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that children who report that they were sexual assaulted don’t need to testify and confront their alleged abuser multiple times in court.

The unanimous decision means that, going forward, young people who allege sexual abuse won’t have to testify at preliminary hearings, except in rare circumstances.

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor who represented one of the alleged victims in the case, called the decision a “big victory” for crime victims.

“As recognized by the court today, there is no good reason for forcing victims to testify twice,” he said. “And given that most cases are resolved by plea bargains, this means that most victims will never need to relive the trauma of the crime through delivering in-court testimony.”

The decision stems from two cases where Utah men were accused of sexually abusing young girls. Defense lawyers had argued in each case that the alleged victim should testify at a preliminary hearing, a court procedure where a judge hears evidence early on in the case and rules if there is enough evidence for the case to move forward.

But the girls’ attorneys had argued that their interviews with the Children’s Justice Center was sufficient evidence for a preliminary hearing, where the stakes are much lower compared to a jury trial.

At a preliminary hearing, a judge hears evidence and decides whether there is a “probable cause” that someone likely committed a crime. “Hearsay” evidence is allowed at this hearing, such as sworn statements or recorded interviews, that would not typically be allowed at trial.

A jury must convict if prosecutors show someone is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Attorneys for the girls agreed that they should testify at a jury trial, but argued that making them testify during a preliminary hearing when a recorded interview was available could retraumatize them.

The state’s high court agreed, though Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee noted that the cases arise “at the difficult intersection between the rights of defendants and the rights of alleged victims in preliminary hearings.”

Attorneys for the two men declined to comment on the ruling Wednesday.

The justices ruled that a child victim could still be required to testify during a preliminary hearing if a defense attorney can show that additional, live testimony is needed to present evidence on a specific point that is material to the judge’s decision.

Both of the men in these cases were charged in 2018, and their cases have been on hold as the appeals played out at the Utah Supreme Court. One man is accused of sexually abusing his 5-year-old daughter. The other is a 27-year-old man accused of having sex with a 12-year-old girl.

Now, their cases can move forward — but without the alleged victims testifying at their preliminary hearings.