In a ruling made 12/17/12, the 2nd California Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to allow remote testimony by a child witness in a domestic violence matter even though the child was not, herself, a victim.
People v. Lujan was a tragic case. In 2006, Lompoc, CA resident, James Lujan, beat Lena, the 17 month-old child of his girlfriend, so badly that she ended up in an emergency room with Shaken Baby Syndrome and two broken collarbones. This was after James had repeated beaten Lena and burned her fingers and tongue. In 2009, James was living with another woman, Meagan. Meagan and her daughter, Vanessa, repeatedly witnessed James hurt Meagan’s younger child, Diego: James beat Diego, he verbally abused him, he bit Diego’s fingertips and burned his tongue with Tabasco sauce. After a severe set of beatings, Meagan called 911 for help. Diego died shortly thereafter. He was just 4 years old. James was arrested on charges of torture (Lena and Diego) and 2nd-degree murder (Diego).
Vanessa, Diego’s sister, was too terrified by James to testify in person; she requested that she be allowed to appear via closed-circuit television. Thanks, in part, to Vanessa’s testimony, the Court ordered James to a prison sentence of 64 years to life, plus 11 years. James appealed, partly on the basis that Vanessa’s remote appearance constituted a violation of the 6th Amendment’s Confrontation Clause.
What is the Confrontation Clause? “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The 14th Amendment made this right to confrontation applicable in state court as well as federal court.
The question is whether or not a witnesses’ remote appearance denies a defendant of his/her right to confront said witness. It is not a new question. In Maryland v. Craig (1990) 497 U.S. 836, the United States Supreme Court held that a child abuse victim could testify by closed-circuit television under certain circumstances without violating the criminal defendant’s right to confront witnesses. C.A.2 determined, by extension, that the same rule applies to a child witness who is not a victim. C.A.2. found that this interpretation of the law conformed with the legislative intent behind Evidence Code §1347(a) providing the court “with discretion to employ alternative court procedures to protect the rights of a child witness, the rights of the defendant, and the integrity of the judicial process.” C.A.2. ruled that the trial court’s allowing Vanessa to testify remotely did not violate James’ 6th Amendment rights.
Domestic violence is, sadly, often a component of Family Law cases. This is why it is important that you know your rights, whether you are a victim or alleged perpetrator of domestic violence.
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