Child witnesses face tough decisions about testifying

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2014 - 9:46 PM

Their voices as victims need to be heard in court, but at what cost?

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Tony Palumbo, Anoka county attorney, and Paul Young, division chief for violent crime in Anoka County.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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One of Bradley Schnickel’s victims threatened suicide. Another became a recluse. After a year in therapy, a third says, “I still do not trust … anyone.”

But when Schnickel, 33, the former Minneapolis police officer who lured adolescent girls into sexual encounters using social media, was sentenced Monday in Anoka County, none of 18 alleged victims chose to read victim-impact statements. Victims’ and relatives’ faces dropped in disappointment when Schnickel received 30 months in prison, not the nearly 12 years the prosecution sought. But prosecutors knew that had victims spoken out in court, there still were no guarantees.

With cases of child pornography, sexual assault, solicitation through electronic media and other forms of child endangerment becoming increasingly prevalent, prosecutors often face a deeply difficult decision — whether to have young victims testify or give impact statements, considering the effects not just in the court, but on the children. Many times, it’s no easier even after consulting the children, their families and, in some instances, therapists and speech pathologists.

“These kids have been violated by people they trust,” said Leah Emmans, a Sherburne County prosecutor who deals with child victims regularly, some as young as 4. “It’s important that the pain in their voices be heard by a judge or jury.”

Sometimes, she concedes, it’s not possible or practical.

In Schnickel’s case, there was no trial; he pleaded guilty in February to three counts of criminal or attempted criminal sexual conduct and two counts of electronic solicitation of a minor. Authorities said he had had sex with two girls, ages 16 and 14.

Prosecutor Paul Young said Tuesday that victims had been prepared to testify had there been a trial, but at Monday’s sentencing, it was Young who was asked by girls and their families to read impact statements in the courtroom.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said Tuesday that it shouldn’t matter who reads a victim-impact statement. “What is most important is the message to a judge about the severity of the impact on the victim,” said Palumbo, who was in the courtroom Monday. But, he added, “The effectiveness of how that message is delivered can vary.”

In the sentencing Monday, Judge James Cunningham said he thought Schnickel, who has been in counseling for more than a year, was amenable to treatment and could be rehabilitated. The judge could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

With 197 days already served, plus good behavior, Schnickel could be out of prison in less than 14 months; prosecutors had sought 142 months. Schickel also faces a lifetime of conditional release. A radical departure from Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines is appealable.

Multiple considerations

Prosecutor Young said Tuesday that “some of these children have been severely traumatized. We don’t want to add to that. As prosecutors, we have to consider their best interests at all times.”

Last week, Robert Minor of Coon Rapids was tried before a judge in Anoka County on several charges of child pornography. He pleaded guilty to one count of stalking a minor with sexual intent after learning that the prosecution planned to call a 13-year-old boy as a witness, although the defense did not say that was the reason for the plea. (The judge will issue his ruling on the other charges later.)

Amy Reed-Hall, the prosecutor in the case, said, “I have never avoided putting a child on the stand. But I don’t make that decision until after I have done a ton of work prepping with little people.”

Reed-Hall says she studies everything — from family dynamics, to the seating in the courtroom, to the child’s fear of not being believed.

Long before being deemed appropriate for the witness stand, children are interviewed by CornerHouse, a child-abuse and evaluation agency in Minneapolis that works with children who often have been referred from child-protection and law-enforcement agencies. The children are allowed to play with toys and get comfortable before they are interviewed, said CornerHouse executive director Patricia Harmon.

“A good pretrial interview offers no guarantees,” Harmon said. “The age of the child, the degree of abuse and the child’s relationship with the accused may determine if it’s appropriate to use the child as a witness in court.”

Testifying can provide a cleansing experience for child victims, prosecutors say.

In 2009, Eric Hawkins was sentenced to 12 years in prison after his conviction for sexually assaulting an Elk River youth soccer player he coached. The girl’s graphic and emotional testimony moved jurors to tears.

“I felt like I was speaking for girls who didn’t have a voice,” she told the Star Tribune after the verdict.

Emmans was the Sherburne County prosecutor during the Hawkins trial. When child victims are invited into her office, they see a Joe Mauer Fathead poster on her wall. She’ll often wear the child’s favorite color or ask about their favorite class, sometimes spending months demystifying the court system while seeing if a child might be comfortable testifying. “You meet these precious individuals who tell you about their darkest days,” Emmans said. “The things that have been done to them are the worse than anything you can imagine, done to them by people who love them more than anything in the world. And you wonder about their future.”

Last summer, Schnickel was sentenced in Hennepin County to a year in the workhouse for sending nude photos of himself to two teenage girls. Prosecutor Juanita Freeman avoided having to call teenage witnesses to the stand when that case also was settled with a plea agreement.

Still, she sees the potential benefit of such testimony. She says it offers kids a chance to say to the defendant, “I know what you did to me was wrong.”

 

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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