By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE (AP) – The Madison teen who wasted away to 68 pounds after her parents allegedly locked her in the basement and denied her food will almost certainly have to testify if her father and stepmother stand trial.
The father’s attorney, William Hayes, filed motions this week asking that the 15-year-old be compelled to testify in person, arguing that the father has the constitutional right to confront his accuser. A legal expert says the move virtually assures that the girl will appear in court.
The case stems from allegations that the father and stepmother kept the girl in a locked basement with an alarm on the door, and forced her to either beg for food or forage for scraps. The girl’s stepbrother is accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting her.
The Associated Press isn’t naming any defendant to avoid identifying the girl.
Children under the age of 16 are sometimes allowed to provide testimony on videotape or via closed-circuit television if a judge decides that facing alleged abusers could be too traumatic. But the girl turns 16 on Dec. 26, so if the trial doesn’t begin before that, Hayes’ motion would be rendered moot, said Cecelia Klingele, a UW-Madison law professor who is not involved in the case.
“Once the witness has turned 16, she would have to testify under the same conditions as an adult,” Klingele said.
The next court activity scheduled is a pair of Aug. 31 motion hearings for the 41-year-old father and 42-year-old stepmother.
At a preliminary hearing in March, a doctor testified that the girl went from 82 pounds as a 9-year-old to 68 pounds six years later. Dr. Barbara Knox said the girl suffered “serial child torture” with prolonged starvation.
The girl didn’t testify at the preliminary hearing. Instead, prosecutors presented a videotaped interview in which she told an investigator her family physically and sexually abused her.
Hayes said the video deprived his client of his constitutional right to cross-examine the girl, and he said the father would not waive that right at trial.
Jurors “will need to see (the girl) in person, assess her demeanor, listen to her direct and cross-examination and then make a determination as to whether or not they are going to believe her,” he wrote in the motion filed Tuesday. He did not immediately return a message left Wednesday.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to say whether he had already been planning to call the girl to the stand.
“I’m not going to speak to the specifics of this case, but obviously when we prep for trial we prep all our witnesses for trial,” he said.
Ozanne said he hadn’t spoken directly with the girl about trial preparation, and said he had no update on her health or condition.
While the Constitution protects a defendant’s right to confront his accuser, it’s not always easy for a lawyer to challenge an accuser who appears vulnerable. Jurors might sympathize with witnesses who appear young, disabled, elderly or poor, and cross-examining a child who seems frail might come across as badgering.
“That’s always a challenge for defense attorneys,” Klingele said. “It requires a high amount of skill to handle cross-examination tactfully.”
Hayes has hinted that he plans to question the girl’s mental health, and the defense wants her to undergo a psychological evaluation.
Hayes has said that when he first reviewed the girl’s allegations, “the word ‘rubbish’ came to mind.”
She was found by a passing driver when she bolted from her home on a chilly February day while barefoot and in thin pajamas. She gained 17 pounds in just over a week in protective care.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison also contributed to this report.