In a recent court opinion, published on August 26, 2010, People v. Rose, the Michigan Court of Appeals allowed a child victim in a sexual abuse trial to testify behind a protective screen, finding that such testimony does not violate the Constitution’s Confrontation Clause.
The defendant, who was convicted by a jury of four counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, and two counts of disseminating sexually explicit matter to a minor, argued on appeal that the use of a witness screen is inherently prejudicial and that the United States Supreme Court has specifically disallowed the use of one-way screens to prevent a witness from being able to see a defendant.
The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected this argument agreeing with the trial court’s finding based on the child’s psychologist’s opinion that the screen was the only way to protect the child from psychological harm if she testified. Because the defendant could still see the child behind the screen, as well as cross-examine her, the presence of the screen (which merely prevented the child from seeing the defendant) would not violate the Confrontation Clause.
In making its finding, the court relied in part on a Michigan statute which permits special arrangements to protect the welfare of a witness.
With regard to the Confrontation Clause, the court applied the test set forth in the case of Maryland v. Craig, 497 US 836 (1990), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that trial courts may limit a defendant’s right to face his accuser in person and in the same courtroom under certain circumstances. The State must make an adequate showing of necessity, which is case-specific. A showing that a child witness would suffer serious emotional distress if testifying in front of the defendant can constitute such necessity. In this case, the Rose court upheld the trial court’s finding of necessity.
The defendant also argued that permitting the child to testify behind the screen was inherently prejudicial and violated his right to due process, which includes the right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent. While it is true that certain court procedures, such as forcing the defendant to sit in the courtroom shackled, can be inherently prejudicial, in this case, the court found that the use of the screen was not inherently prejudicial because it does not brand the defendant with a mark of guilt and could signify many meanings to jurors other than the defendant’s guilt. There was also no showing that the screen in the trial in fact prejudiced the defendant’s trial in Rose.
The court also found that even if the use of the screen were inherently prejudicial, the trial court could nevertheless utilize the screen because it found its use was necessary to further an essential state interest.
After rejecting two other issues brought up in the defendant’s appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.