COLUMBUS: Witnesses at the child abuse trial of a man accused of harming the 3-year-old son of his girlfriend should not have been allowed to discuss statements the boy made to preschool teachers, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that could tie prosecutors’ hands in future child abuse cases.
At issue is the role teachers or other non-law enforcement officials play when they hear allegations of abuse and then report them as required by law.
The court’s 4-3 ruling upheld a lower court decision that ordered a new trial for Darius Clark of Cleveland, convicted in 2010 of several counts of felonious assault and child endangering.
The son of Clark’s girlfriend was questioned by preschool teachers about bruises and welts they saw on him when Clark dropped him off in March 2010, according to Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling.
Clark was later indicted, and at trial, the preschool teachers and others were allowed to discuss statements the boy made, but the boy was not required to testify.
Clark appealed his conviction on the grounds that the statements violated his constitutional right to confront witnesses.
Clark’s argument hinged on what role the teachers played when they asked the boy about his injuries.
Statements gathered by people in clear law enforcement positions — such as police or prosecutors — aren’t normally admissible by themselves. That’s because the assumption is they were gathered as evidence and if used would amount to hearsay.
However, statements gathered by people such as teachers or coaches just trying to figure out what happened generally were admissible since the original intent was not to gather evidence.
The court said otherwise, ruling that because people like teachers are required to report abuse by state law, that puts them in the position of law enforcement.
Barring those statements protects the fundamental constitutional right of confronting witnesses, Justice Terrence O’Donnell said for the court majority.
Those statements can be used, “When teachers suspect and investigate child abuse with a primary purpose of identifying the perpetrator,” O’Donnell said.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor strongly disagreed, saying the decision would harm the ability to protect vulnerable children in future prosecutions.
“On the record before us, there is no basis from which to conclude that the injured child’s teachers acted on behalf of law enforcement,” O’Connor wrote.
The decision could make it harder to enter a child’s statement in cases of alleged physical or sexual abuse, Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University criminal law professor, said Wednesday.
“It could make a big difference in these kinds of cases where you’re relying on a child’s testimony,” he said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.