The Confrontation Clause: When are Statements of Sexual Abuse Made by a Minor Considered Testimonial?
The defendant, Benjamin Ruiz (“Defendant”), was convicted of three counts of sex crimes against his minor daughter (“Minor”) and sentenced to 44 years to life in prison. At trial, the alleged victim was found by the court to be “unavailable” to testify as a witness.
The alleged victim’s school counselor testified that on September 20, 2016, the mother of the minor came to the counselor’s office, appearing “shaky” and with “a sense of urgency.” Minor was called into the office and talked to the counselor about the abuse but said that “she didn’t want her father to go to jail,” “wanted her family to be together,” but “wanted it to stop.” Donnelly, a social worker, conducted a safety “check” at Minor’s home that night (September 20) after receiving a report that Minor had been sexually abused. Donnelly testified as to what she witnessed as well as the questions she asked Minor and Minor’s statements during a brief, private safety assessment interview during the “check.”
On appeal, the issues were:
- whether the trial court violated the Defendant’s confrontation clause rights by admitting into evidence Minor’s out-of-court statements to the social worker; and
- whether the trial court erred in finding that the prosecution had presented evidence sufficient to satisfy the corpus delicti rule.
Defendant’s Confrontation Clause Rights
On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court violated his confrontation clause rights “because Minor’s statements” to Donnelly “were testimonial, she was unavailable to testify at trial and was never subject to cross-examination.”
- Crawford v. Washington: U.S. Supreme Court held that the admission of an otherwise admissible “testimonial” hearsay statement of an unavailable declarant is inadmissible in violation of the confrontation clause unless the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the declarant.
- Davis v. Washington: the declarant’s statements were non-testimonial because she made the statements during a 911 call as a domestic violence victim reporting events of an “ongoing emergency” and the purpose of eliciting her statements was to resolve that emergency.
- Hammon v. Indiana: the declarant was also a victim of domestic violence, but because her statements were taken by police officers in her living room while another officer constrained the suspect in another room, those statements were “testimonial.”
- Ohio v. Clark: established the “primary purpose test.” The court should look to whether the primary purpose of the questions asked and statements given were testimonial in nature, or some other non-testimonial purpose such as a child reporting abuse to a teacher.
The Ruiz Court applied the “primary purpose” reasoning of Clark, finding that the confrontation clause was not violated because the conversation between Donnelly and Minor was for the primary purpose of assessing the safety of Minor and to stop the sexual abuse Minor was experiencing. Thus, Minor’s statements were non-testimonial and properly admitted.
The Corpus Delicti Rule
The corpus delicti rule requires that when a defendant makes extrajudicial incriminating statements, there must also be independent evidence of the body of the crime itself in order to convict. See People v. Alvarez (2002). The Court held that because neither the minor’s testimony nor any other evidence independent of Defendant’s confession indicated that Defendant engaged in any sex act with Minor before her 11th birthday, the conviction for oral copulation or sexual penetration of a child 10 or younger (PC § 288.7) be reversed. All other convictions were upheld.
Choosing the Right Defense Counsel
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