Evidence of Prior Abuse May Be Allowed in Sex Offender Trials

By LIZ FARMER,Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - After hours of debate, the Maryland Senate moved a step closer Friday to passing a bill that would make it easier to for prosecutors to present evidence of prior accusations of sexual abuse of a minor into trials of suspected sex offenders.

"How many kids does a pedophile get to molest before we let the jury in on the secret?" Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, the bill's floor manager, asked the Senate during Friday's debate.

The measure was given preliminary approval on a voice vote and may come up for a final vote as early as next week. If passed, it still must win approval in the House of Delegates, where similar bills have twice before been killed.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, would let a judge decide whether to allow a jury to hear evidence of past accusations of abuse that have not been proven through a separate court trial. According to Frosh and others, too many cases are being thrown out of the courts because current law does not allow for such evidence to be provided to the jury.

However, some lawmakers are concerned that the standard for evidence will be lowered too far and that the proposed law could lead juries to convict defendants for past accusations rather than the crime for which they stand trial.

"This bill has the ability to put people who are innocent in jail," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. "I am convinced of that."

Zirkin tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment that would set up more specific standards of relevance that evidence of prior abuse must meet before it is admitted in court.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore, a public defender, said Thursday that the standard for admitting evidence of prior accusations would still be "much higher" than the typical standard for admitting other types of evidence. According to the bill, the judge would have to agree that the evidence is "clear and convincing" against the defendant before it can be used in the trial.

Still others are worried that the standard for evidence is too ambiguous.

"It's bringing into question too much judgment on the part of the judge," Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard, said after Friday's session. "We seem to be stepping into a situation where you can have an unfair trial." Current law only allows evidence of prior allegations to be admitted in a limited capacity in order to show intent, or a person's motive for committing a crime. If passed, the new law would allow prosecutors to use this evidence more fully in order to show a pattern of behavior.

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