Prosecutors have long argued that they face major hurdles when trying defendants accused of sexually assaulting a child. The problem, they say, is that often the only proof that a crime happened is the testimony of children, who may have trouble keeping their story straight.
“There is an awareness that as a child, they are more vulnerable, less able to explain what happened to them and to give consistent stories, even if it really happened,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former prosecutor and judge.
Last week, Huffman filed Senate Bill 12, which would allow evidence of prior offenses, including accusations by other children against the same defendant, to be admitted into evidence. She said federal laws already allow that kind of testimony, and that Texas would join many other states with similar provisions. But critics of the proposal argue that in Texas it is already too easy for prosecutors to win child sex assault cases, and they worry it would lead to more wrongful convictions.
Huffman's bill comes amid a broader push by lawmakers to focus on child sexual assault during the coming legislative session. Last week, Attorney General Greg Abbott unveiled a public service announcement featuring Texas college football coaches Mack Brown of the University of Texas at Austin, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M University and Tony Levine of the University of Houston that urged adults to learn the signs of child sexual assault. "Child sexual abuse is a silent epidemic," Abbott said at a press conference. "Many people assume kids will speak up if they've been abused."
Huffman said her proposal would help turn reports of assault into convictions, because it would allow juries to see that a defendant may have assaulted other children.
Prosecutor Alana Minton, chief of the crimes against children unit at the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said allowing evidence of other accusations would be "very useful in the right circumstances." In most cases, she said, there is no physical evidence, because a long time can pass between a sexual assault and the child’s report of the abuse. “I've tried very few cases where there is an immediate outcry,” she said.
Huffman said that the bill would protect defendants by requiring judges to first hold hearings without the jury present to learn about additional allegations. The judge would then decide whether to allow the testimony.
But some criminal defense lawyers are furious about the proposal. They said it is already too easy for innocent people to get convicted in Texas. “I think legislators should be a little more concerned, rather than trying to lock up more people,” said Mary Sue Molnar, director of the advocacy group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, adding that the bill would result in more wrongful convictions.
Molnar also said she worried that indigent defendants would be unable to afford experts to dispute the additional allegations. “How can someone who is indigent defend himself against that sort of thing?” she said.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, called the proposal silly.
"It is already very easy to convict people of child sexual assault," he said. “It should be getting harder.”
Blackburn said Huffman’s bill was misleading because “on the surface” it may seem like it would allow repeat offenders to get caught, but in reality prior convictions are already allowed into evidence.
In 2007 — the same year lawmakers passed Jessica’s Law to increase sentences for child sex assault convictions — Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg proposed a similar bill, but that measure failed. A report by the House Research Organization said, “The bill would allow admission of evidence regarding a defendant’s character, which could distract the jury from the real issue of whether the defendant actually committed the crime in question.”
Bills similar to Huffman's were also filed in 2005 and 2011. Each passed one chamber of the Legislature but not the other. The bill sparked heated debate on the Senate floor in 2011. “I worry about overzealous prosecution, sloppy prosecution,” Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said at the time.
Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a prepared statement that Huffman's bill would “strengthen Texas’ Jessica’s Law and help protect our children from these dangerous criminals and put them behind bars once and for all.”