Allshouse v. Pennsylvania (Docket No. 09-1396) (pending cert.) seeks to resolve whether or not a child’s statements to a child protection worker who is investigating allegations of abuse should be considered “testimonial” evidence and hence subject to the demands of the Confrontation Clause under Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).
In Allshouse, Ricky Lee Allshouse was accused of breaking his seven-month-old son’s arm. His conviction rested largely upon his four-year-old daughter’s statement that she had witnessed the abusive act; this was the only direct evidence that Allshouse had caused the injury. The daughter’s statement was made during an interview with John Geist, a caseworker from Children and Youth Services; the daughter was herself deemed unavailable to testify at trial, based on a finding that requiring her to do so would inflict severe emotional distress.
The defense argued that the admission of this testimony violated Allshouse’s constitutional right, under the Confrontation Clause, to confront his accuser at trial. He relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford, which held that a prosecution may not introduce “testimonial” hearsay from an unavailable declarant unless the defendant is afforded a prior opportunity for cross-examination; the Court, however, declined to define “testimonial” with any degree of specificity. Three Pennsylvania courts –the trial court, Superior Court, and Supreme Court – all held that the child’s testimony was non-testimonial and therefore admissible at trial; interestingly, each court employed a different rationale for its decision. Allshouse now seeks to have this determination overturned in the Supreme Court.
This case is interesting, and important, for several reasons. Practically, courts at both the federal and state levels are split on how to interpret the “testimonial” requirement of Crawford. This split, unsurprisingly, has led to uncertainty among litigants about how to proceed at trial, and requires Supreme Court resolution.
Additionally, this case is representative of a tension between the rights of the accused and the State’s legitimate desire to convict guilty parties. The right to confront one’s accuser is one of the most fundamental rights of the accused in criminal trial; conversely, the accusations leveled by children during conversations with social workers can often be the key, or only, testimony that allows an abuser to be convicted. Children’s testimony, moreover, would seem to be particularly in need of the scrutiny provided by the Confrontation Clause, as children have been shown to be highly susceptible to suggestive questioning techniques that can lead to false memories and accusations.
Striking a balance between these competing priorities is crucial to the administration of justice, and should be consistent across the country.