By DINESH RAMDE
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Prosecutors decided Tuesday not to play the video of an emaciated 15-year-old girl who told police that her father and stepmother kept her in a basement for years and starved her, after the judge said during a preliminary hearing for the parents that she had already watched the two-hour video.
The video would have provided the first public glimpse of the Madison teen, who has been in Dane County’s custody since a passing motorist spotted her last month crying and walking barefoot in pajamas in the cold. She weighed only 70 pounds and was so small that the motorist mistook her for an 8-year-old.
The defense agreed with the decision not to play the video. William Hayes, who represents the girl’s 40-year-old father, said it would lead to media coverage that could prejudice potential jurors and compel a motion for a change of venue.
The preliminary hearing was for the judge to decide whether there’s enough evidence to warrant a trial. The father and 42-year-old stepmother are charged with child abuse, child neglect and reckless endangerment.
In a separate case, the girl’s 18-year-old stepbrother is charged with child abuse and sexual assault for allegedly forcing her to perform oral sex on him several times. His arraignment is set for March 19.
State officials are investigating how Dane County child welfare officials handled complaints about the family.
The Associated Press typically does not name the alleged victims of sexual assault, and it is not naming the defendants in order to protect the girl’s identity.
The video discussed Tuesday was of interviews the girl gave to police in which she allegedly said she was regularly denied food and was forced to survive by eating scraps from the floor or garbage can. She said she wasn’t allowed to go to school or have friends, and that she was kept in a locked basement that was monitored with cameras and outfitted with an alarm and motion detector.
The judge said the girl looked far younger than her 15 years in the video, appearing more like an 8- or 9-year-old. The teen clutches a stuffed animal, breaks into tears at times and begs investigators not to send her home, Judge Amy Smith said.
Prosecutors had earlier requested that the video be allowed in place of compelling the girl to testify. Videotaped testimony by a child can be admissible in court under limited circumstances, including cases of certain types of abuse. Smith granted the prosecution’s request Tuesday.
But instead of playing the video, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne noted that since Smith had seen the entire interview already, there was nothing to be gained from playing it again.
Both Ozanne and the defense then asked that the video be sealed, meaning it wouldn’t become part of the public record. Several reporters in the room objected, and the judge seemed inclined to agree with the media. She noted that had the girl been called to testify, her testimony would have become part of the public record.
She scheduled a hearing for later Tuesday to decide whether to make the video available to the media.
The judge also postponed the rest of the preliminary hearing until Friday after Ozanne said his main witness had a family emergency Tuesday.
Prosecutors intended to call Dr. Barbara Knox, who examined the girl after she ran away from home. But Ozanne said Knox couldn’t make it to court because her child was sick.
Defense attorney William Hayes, who represents the girl’s father, had hinted that he would address the girl’s mental health during the hearing. He said he reviewed her allegations “and the word ‘rubbish’ came to mind.” He declined to elaborate to reporters after the hearing.
Knox diagnosed the girl as a victim of “serial child torture with prolonged exposure to definite starvation.” However, the teen did tell investigators during her initial interviews that she could go upstairs for food but that doing so would set off the alarm and risk provoking her stepmother. She also said her parents kept cameras on the pantry where the food was kept.
The stepmother’s attorney, Thomas J. McClure, said he plans to focus his defense on whether there was actual and intentional harm or neglect.
“The state’s version is both contradictory and untested,” he told the AP. “There is evidently much more to be learned.”