Friday, February 20, 2009

Testifying For Kids

A recap: I have been beating a drum (here, here and here) on the need to pass Senate Bill 5832 this year in the state of Washington, which would extend the statute of limitations in child sex abuse crimes to the victim's 28th birthday.

When making public noise, there eventually develops an obligation to take action. In other words - practice what you preach! So when I learned this week about the hearing set two days ago on this bill, I decided I had to go and testify. The 10-hour round-trip drive was not enticing, especially since I've been sick and so am way behind in the tasks I've assigned myself. But I felt compelled to go.

I have not testified at a legislative hearing since law school - oh, just 20 years or so ago. Back then I was working in the legal clinic at the University of Maryland with women in prison serving extraordinarily long sentences for having killed abusive husbands. I came up with a three-point plan (all of which succeeded, BTW) to help these women, and future women, receive more insightful treatment from the legal system. One point of the plan was to pass legislation that allowed expert testimony on the battered woman syndrome in murder or assault trials where there was evidence that the victims had abused the defendant. Back at that time (1987), that kind of testimony was often rejected by the trial court because it was only admissible in cases of self defense and the definition of self defense was limited to "imminent" (immediate) harm. This bill was going to allow defendants to argue "imperfect self defense" (i.e., subjectively but unreasonably believing that there is imminent danger), which had the potential of reducing the crime from murder to manslaughter. In rare cases the testimony could help in achieving an acquittal.

The year after I left law school - and through the hard work of battered women advocates in Maryland - the bill passed, and the other two points of my plan also came to pass (which were to create an educational video about these women's plights in prison, and to achieve clemency for those serving too-long sentences.) In fact, it was after viewing "A Plea for Justice" that then-MD Gov. Donald Schaeffer went to meet the women inmates in the video and ultimately chose to pursue the clemency route. He was the one who asked that the clemency petitions be filed. It was a controversial move at the time, but I personally knew the details of the cases, knew their significant merits, and was really proud of him for granting clemency.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday: When I arrived at the hearing, the room was filling up for other bills to be heard that day. For one of them - dealing with public defense funds - Adam Kline (head of the Judiciary Committee) spoke about the "Eastern Washington" verdict that had just come down. I smiled. Why, he was talking about the $3 million verdict my colleagues had obtained. Hey, I know that case!

When they called our bill, it struck me that it did not seem controversial. There were only three of us testifying, all in favor. There were essentially no questions. They all were very nice to me, that I had driven all the way over from Spokane (and my hoarseness gave away how sick I was), but still no questions. Sen. McCaslin - a Republican from this county - was particularly nice to me, and thanked me for coming all the way over for the hearing. They don't get many people to make the drive.... The non-controversy felt odd, since this bill has been killed in this very committee for several years. Now it will pass? Hmmm.....

What was most powerful about the presentation, for me, was the woman sitting next to me. Jean Soliz-Conklin is the executive director of the Sentencing Guideline Commission. She explained to the committee that the Commission had studied this issue during the past year through an ad hoc committee and that people "from Eastern Washington" had in particular given the committee great insight into how a child sex abuse victim often needs to have time away from the family home before being able to come forward about the childhood abuse. She also said that states vary extremely on where to place the statute of limitations, but that there did seem to be some uniformity that age 28 (for the victim) was an acceptable spot, so the Commission was making that recommendation.

My testimony was basically what I have said here on the website. Abusers are sick, but are under a compulsion and we need to give the abused children time to realize that the abuse is not their fault, that they should not stay silent....

I stuck around a little to listen to students and teachers testify about a freedom of speech bill for student journalists. But then I needed to head home. We shall see what happens next....

No comments: