Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon is taking more child abuse cases to trial in what she considers an aggressive stand against such crimes -- but her prosecutors are losing many of the cases.
Ms. McLendon, who took office in January, has highlighted cases for her prosecutors "to go to the mat on," a phrase she often uses to describe how certain cases should be vigorously pursued.
"We're more likely [now] to go full speed forward," said Ms. McLendon, Howard County's first Republican state's attorney. "We're not going to be afraid of a loss if the evidence is there."
This aggressive policy -- described by defense attorneys as simply inflexibility -- could have far-reaching effects on the outcome of child abuse cases.
With about 15 pending cases alleging physical and sexual abuse, the state's attorney's office likely will have many more trials -- risking acquittals in its quest for convictions carrying significant jail time.
The effects of Ms. McLendon's policy can already be seen from a look at the handful of cases brought to court during the first six months of Ms. McLendon's term.
Prosecutors handled 13 cases in Howard Circuit Court in this period, compared with eight cases during the same period in 1994 under Ms. McLendon's predecessor, Democrat William R. Hymes.
All eight cases in the first half of 1994 ended in plea agreements, with none of the defendants receiving sentences of more than three months in jail, according to court records.
Of the 13 cases so far in 1995, seven ended in plea deals and six of them went to jury trials -- and only two of those six trials resulted in convictions, records show.
In the 1995 plea agreements, the sentences ranged from probation to six months in jail, according to records. In the two convictions resulting from trials, one defendant was given probation, but the other was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Ms. McLendon noted that her plea agreements have carried the more serious charges of child abuse or sexual offenses. Plea deals worked out by her predecessor typically saw charges downgraded, for example, to battery, she said.
"I expect in the future that you will see harsher sentences and tougher pleas," she said. "I think we're pushing harder on them."
Mr. Hymes defended his office's record, saying most of its plea deals were approved by victims or their families. He added that ** many cases ended in pleas because victims would not agree to testify.
"What can you do?" said Mr. Hymes, who did not seek a fifth term last year. "At that particular point, the prosecutor's hands are pretty well tied."
Ms. McLendon, though, will take cases to trial even if victims don't wish to testify, if she and her prosecutors believe a trial is a better alternative than seeking a plea.
Ms. McLendon and prosecutors who handle most child-abuse cases believe that by taking child abuse cases to trial, citizens will learn about the issue and the number of these crimes will be reduced.
"If you're ever going to stop abuse, you have to send a clear, consistent message to the community," Senior Assistant State's Attorney Kathi Hill said.
'There's a zeal'
Meanwhile, even with the increased risk of losing cases, child welfare advocates and police investigators in Howard County welcome Ms. McLendon's stand on child abuse.
"There's a zeal that exists that wasn't there in the previous
administration," said Dale Jackson, executive director of the county's Child Advocacy Center.
Sgt. Sandra Regler, supervisor of the Howard County Police Department's child abuse and sexual assault units, said prosecutors now get involved in investigations at an early stage, regularly reviewing cases even before police file criminal charges.
"I see a more aggressive style," Sergeant Regler said of the state's attorney's office. "I'm glad that they're trying these cases. It at least gives a victim a day in court."
But Ms. Jackson and Sergeant Regler acknowledge that the jury is still out on Ms. McLendon's policy, saying it's too soon to tell whether the policy will be able to reduce child abuse in the county.
F: "Ask me that in another six months," Ms. Jackson said.
Defense attorneys, however, say they don't necessarily see an aggressive style in Ms. McLendon's prosecutors. Rather, they simply see the prosecutors being "inflexible," as one defense attorney described them.
"I think they're too frequently looking for punishment rather than a way to make a family whole again," Deputy Public Defender Louis P. Willemin said. "I feel everybody has staked out a position. There isn't really anyone looking out for the family."
Mr. Willemin squared off with Ms. Hill in May in a case alleging that a Columbia woman and her live-in boyfriend repeatedly beat her teen-age son.
The defense attorney said he attempted to reach a plea agreement that would have put the cases on the court's inactive docket -- meaning the couple would not be prosecuted if they sought family counseling.
But Ms. Hill refused the offer, saying she wanted the defendants to plead guilty to felony charges, although she would not seek jail time for them. Mr. Willemin, noting that his clients flatly denied the allegations, rejected the offer. The cases then went to trial.
The man was the first to stand trial. Mr. Willemin argued during the trial that the teen-age son could not be believed, noting that school records show he had a history of lying and fighting. The jury's deliberations ended with an acquittal.
The next day, the mother was to go to trial.
Mr. Willemin requested that her case be put on the inactive docket. Ms. Hill again rejected the deal, saying she wanted Ms. Thomas to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and receive probation before judgment, meaning she would not have a conviction on her record if she complied with the terms of her probation.
But Mr. Willemin turned down the offer and Ms. Thomas' case went before a jury. Mr. Willemin again challenged the teen-ager's credibility and won another acquittal.
"They've been trying a lot of these cases, and they're losing a lot of them," Mr. Willemin said.
Difficult to prosecute
Mark Ells, director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, Va., said abuse cases are difficult to prosecute because their key witnesses are children.
In most cases, there is little physical evidence to take before a jury, and there are rarely witnesses, Mr. Ells said. Meanwhile, the child is often reluctant to testify.
Ms. McLendon added that sexual abuse often is carried out by someone a child trusts, many times a parent.
Abused children are often torn between the need to have their abusers punished and the fear of losing their families, she said.
Abused children typically are placed in foster care, abusive parents go to jail and the parents' marriage ends in divorce.
Mr. Ells said he hasn't seen a national trend toward prosecutors taking more child abuse cases to trial, because prosecution decisions depend on the facts of each case.
By going to trial, prosecutors can often win a conviction on the most serious charges against a defendant -- and thus a stiffer sentence than in a plea agreement, Mr. Ells said. However, prosecutors risk losing the case altogether if a jury doesn't buy their assertions.
Plea deals also enable victims to avoid testifying, since for some victims testifying can be a stressful experience. Mr. Ells said. But for some victims, he said, testifying can be therapeutic, helping them to close the door on a horrifying ordeal.
Much of the preparation for child-abuse trials is focused on getting victims ready to testify, Ms. Hill said.
Prosecutors give victims brochures explaining how to testify, show them where they would testify in a courtroom and discuss the possibility that the abuser may be found not guilty.
If a child is unable to testify, or if other evidence is lacking, prosecutors will accept a plea bargain for suspected abusers.
Ms. Hill said most prosecutors don't like plea deals in child abuse cases -- even if it will enable the victim to avoid a painful situation. "That's cheating the child," she said. "The child, if properly prepared, will be OK."
One victim's mother
But the preparation wasn't enough for a 12-year-old Columbia girl who accused her judo instructor of abuse, said her mother. The woman said the trial was a grueling experience for her daughter.
"[My daughter] felt that the trial was far from therapeutic," she said. "She handled it well until the moment she had to walk into the courtroom. . . . I felt the trial was very difficult."
The woman said her family wanted the case to end with a plea bargain, but the defendant rejected the prosecution's plea offer. He went to trial, won an acquittal and is now asking the court to expunge the case from its records.
The woman added that her daughter and the family were shocked by the not-guilty verdict.
"I guess the most wondrous thing for me is if the police and the state's attorney felt there should be charges against this man, then why didn't that carry any weight with the jury," the woman said.
'Look in the mirror'
Ms. McLendon and Ms. Hill believe the public's failure to recognize child abuse as an issue is the main reason jurors often acquit defendants of criminal charges.
They also believe jurors are reluctant to take the word of a child -- particularly in sex abuse cases when there is little corroborative evidence -- to pin a conviction on an adult.
Mr. Ells agreed. Children "might be viewed with some skepticism by adults," said Mr. Ells, whose organization is part of the American Prosecutors Research Institute.
But Ms. McLendon and Ms. Hill believe trials in these cases bring publicity to the issue and make citizens realize how serious child abuse is in the county.
"I'm convinced people in Howard County are in denial [in believing] that child abuse doesn't happen," Ms. McLendon said.
Ms. Hill added that people don't understand that child abuse occurs in all types of families -- regardless of their income, race, profession or neighborhood.
"What does a child abuser look like?" she said. "They look like us. . . . Nobody wants to look in the mirror."
CHILD ABUSE CASES
First half of 1994
Number of cases -- 8
Disposition -- 8 plea agreements
Sentences -- 3 months in jail or less
First half of 1995
Number of cases -- 13
Disposition -- 7 plea agreements, 2 jury convictions, 4 jury acquittals
Sentences -- Probation to 6 months in jail, Probation and 15 years in jail
SOURCE: Howard Circuit Court