High Court Allows Use of Past Assaults in Child Abuse Cases
In a ruling that could make it easier to obtain convictions in child abuse cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that California prosecutors may use evidence that a child had been “battered” in the past to convict her parents of murder.
The 6-2 ruling, issued Wednesday, reinstates the murder conviction of a Hayward man whose 6-month-old daughter died shortly after being brought to a hospital in 1981. An autopsy found that the child had rib fractures, a torn rectum, a split liver and other injuries--some of them suffered on earlier occasions.
The father, Mark O. McGuire, said at first that the child suffered the fatal injury when she fell off a couch. When he was brought to trial, his wife, Daisy, was given immunity from prosecution to testify against her husband but she said instead that she had murdered the baby.
Prosecutors contended that the wife was lying. They also used the evidence of the child’s array of past injuries to establish the so-called “battered child syndrome,” as permitted under California law. A jury convicted the father of second-degree murder.
Last year, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the use of the battered child evidence was prejudicial and inflammatory and ordered McGuire’s conviction overturned. The three-judge panel noted that evidence of the baby’s previous injuries did not prove that the father had caused them nor did it refute the possibility that the infant had died from an accidental injury.
State officials feared that if the appeals court ruling were allowed to stand, it could have jeopardized prosecutions of child abusers. They appealed to the high court.
In part, the high court’s quick action reflected Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s increasing impatience with federal judges who act on writs of habeas corpus to overturn state court convictions. Under habeas corpus laws, inmates get a second chance to challenge the constitutionality of their arrests and convictions.
In a terse opinion, the chief justice asserted that the San Francisco-based judges had no business second-guessing the use of the battered child evidence under the terms of state law.
“Today, we re-emphasize that it is not the province of a federal habeas corpus court to re-examine state court determinations on state law questions,” Rehnquist said.