The Child Witness
All weekend long I grumbled, groped and procrastinated. I just can't face what needs doing this week. That's because tomorrow I will cross examine a ten-year-old.
There is nothing in the law more unpleasant or distasteful than that.
I've cross examined professional kidnappers granted immunity by the federal government, drug king pins, folks who trucked, bartered and traded in all manner of evil. But the cross examination that still sears me was that of a nine-year-old child.
The state accused my client of anally raping the girl and her two sisters. The defendant, my client, was their father. The girls were seven, nine and 12 when the assaults took place. My client denied the charges, and so we went to trial. The state saved the youngest girl, ten at the time of trial, for last.
Her father sat at my table, accused of violating her. The state was gentle with this young witness. She spoke softly, but hesitantly. A social worker sat just beyond the bar beaming encouragement. Her testimony did not go well for the state. Crucial things were left only partially said, things which, if said, would certainly have led to a conviction.
"Your witness," were two of the most terrifying words I could have imagined.
I needed to make sure that the omissions in her testimony were locked in. The testimony of her sisters was explosive. A jury would be inclined to give this child the benefit of the doubt. The presumption of innocence goes on holiday when a child takes the stand.
I got up from my chair, stood in the well of the court, and was overcome with how beautiful and complete a person this little girl was. I wanted to adopt her and spare her the courtroom. It seemed obscene to subject her to the scrutiny of strangers, and somehow wrong to do the painstaking work of cross examination.
I survived the ordeal. The witness did not say the things that would have spelled certain doom for my client. Indeed, certain of the charges were thrown out because the state could not prove its claim with the testimony offered. But somehow, it felt like less than victory.
This week I face another ten-year-old and I am weak with fear. A courtroom can be a ferocious place, filled with storm and stress of battles well and truly waged. But there is no warring with a child witness. There cannot be. Who would forgive it?
I am counting the hours until she takes the stand. I know that once this nightmare begins, it must end. Waiting is the hard part.