The Lawletter Vol 40 No 6
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held in Ohio v. Clark, 135 S. Ct. 2173 (2015), that statements that children have made to teachers about possible abuse can be used as evidence at criminal trials arising from the alleged abuse, even if the children are not competent to testify in court.
The facts in Clark showed that the preschool teacher of a three-year-old boy had noticed bruises on his body, and when she asked him how he had gotten the bruises, he told her that his mother's boyfriend had hit him when his mother was not home. The teacher notified the police, and the boyfriend was ultimately charged with child abuse. At the boyfriend's trial, the State introduced into evidence the statements that the child had made to the teacher, but the child did not testify, because of a statute precluding the testimony of children under 10 years old if they "appear incapable of receiving just impressions of the facts and transactions respecting which they are examined, or of relating them truly." Id. at 2178 (quoting Ohio R. Evid. 601(A)). The trial judge determined that pursuant to this rule, the child was not competent to testify.
In finding that the trial court had properly allowed the hearsay evidence, the Court rejected the boyfriend's argument that the use of the evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses, as interpreted by Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). The Court found that because the child's statements to his teacher were not testimonial, their admission was not precluded by Crawford. As support for this finding, the Court noted that there was no indication that the primary purpose of the teacher's conversation with the child had been to gather evidence for a future prosecution. On the contrary, the Court concluded, it appeared that the first objective of the teacher's questioning had been to protect the child. The Court's ruling reversed the holding of the Ohio Supreme Court, which had determined that the child's statements were testimonial because the purpose of the teacher's questions had not been to deal with an existing emergency but, rather, to gather evidence potentially relevant to a subsequent criminal prosecution.