A landmark bill that would allow certain children to testify via closed-circuit television in child molestation cases sailed through the Assembly on Monday with only one negative vote.
Prompted by the McMartin Pre-School molestation case in Manhattan Beach, the legislation would give judges the power to permit children 10 years old and under to testify by television from outside the courtroom.
“The bill represents a fair compromise; it represents a delicate balancing of the interests of the defendants and the interests of the children,” said Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles).
The measure by Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena) was approved by the Assembly on a lopsided vote of 75 to 1, a victory for the parents of children in the McMartin Pre-School case who have lobbied heavily for the bill.
It was unclear, however, whether the measure would apply in the McMartin case, because the alleged offenses occurred before the bill would become law.
Gov. George Deukmejian was reported by his office to have taken no position on the bill.
The Senate, which earlier approved the bill with only one vote to spare, must consider amendments made by the Assembly, including one that reduced the age limit from 13 to 10.
The bill has been highly controversial because, as civil libertarians argued, it could deprive defendants in child molestation cases of their constitutional right to confront witnesses against them.
Even some supporters of the measure acknowledge that the courts may find the bill unconstitutional.
“The chances of this being thrown out are very, very high,” said Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
Stirling proposed a last-minute amendment that would require an immediate appellate hearing on the issue. This, he said, would prevent children from having to testify twice if the legislation is nullified by the court.
Stirling said he was not prepared to offer his proposal Monday and asked that the bill be reconsidered Thursday, a move that prevented the measure from being returned immediately to the Senate.
Democrats said, however, that a provision for a prompt test of the legislation already exists in law and that Stirling’s request for reconsideration had little chance of being approved.
Under Torres’ measure, children would be able to testify by closed-circuit television only if a judge finds that the alleged victim would be unable to testify in an open courtroom.
Judges would have to make certain findings, including that the alleged victim had been threatened or that a child would be intimidated by a defense attorney.
Others in Room
The only people who would be allowed in the room during the child’s testimony would be a person to provide the child with emotional support, a non-uniformed bailiff and a representative of the court selected in consultation with both the prosecution and defense.
Two cameras would be used, one to record the child’s testimony and the other to film the entire room so that the defense could observe any improper coaching of the child.