February 5, 2021

Bill to protect victims in pretrial process advances

Joe Gratz

Flickr/cc

Members of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday considered the sensitive issue of how best to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable people — including children and incapacitated adults — in the court’s pretrial process.

House Bill 143, sponsored by three Democrats and one Republican, including Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque, would restrict pretrial interviews and allow some victims to provide testimony from interviews in child safe houses before they testify in court.

The bill would also give adults the right to refuse to take part in pretrial interviews. The defense would then submit questions to the judge, who would then refer the questions to a neutral party to conduct an interview with the victim. But the victim would still have to testify. 

After around 90 minutes of sometimes emotional testimony and legal wrangling, the committee voted 4-1 to advance the bill to the House Judiciary Committee.

At the heart of the proposed legislation, Dixon and others who spoke in favor of the bill said, is the need to minimize the anguish that those victims feel as they are interviewed repeatedly about intimate and possibly frightening details of a case.

James Grayson a deputy district attorney in Bernalillo County, said children who have experienced a traumatizing crime have to live it “over and over and over” again as they tell their story to a police officer, a nurse, a child advocate in a safe house, a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney, among others. 

To give the five committee members a taste of what that might be like, child advocate Tiffany Corn stopped the proceedings cold when she asked them to recount their most pleasurable sexual experience.

An awkward silence followed. 

The point, Corn said, is if that’s a difficult topic to discuss with strangers, imagine how hard it is for someone to talk about a negative, violent experience.

Shania McConnell, a young woman who testified in favor of the bill via Zoom, said she was interviewed by a trio of defense lawyers during pretrial proceedings when she was a teenager.

“I felt humiliated, sad, broken,” she said, her voice shaking. 

But others, including Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said the bill could rob defendants of due process, among other issues. 

Kim Chavez Cook, an appellate defender at the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender, said she did not disagree with the intent of the bill. 

But, she said, “some traumatizing experience is unfortunately a part of the adversarial process that is our criminal justice system. We do require witnesses to tell their story.”

Lord, who said she has been the victim of domestic abuse, ultimately voted in favor of the bill. But “it’s very painful because we have to make a logical decision based on emotion,” she said.

Romero cast the sole vote against the bill. 

The bill’s fiscal impact report says the Administrative Office of the District Attorneys concluded that New Mexico is one of just three states that allow pretrial interviews for child victims of crimes — a point both Grayson and Dixon brought up during the hearing. 

The report says the bill would grant those victims “more rights in the criminal justice process” but warns it “may have the unintended consequence of limiting the ability for a defendant to conduct a thorough investigation of the charges during the discovery phase of a criminal case.”