(CN) - The Supreme Court today agreed to decide the constitutional limits on when statements made by a child about being sexually or physically abused are eligible for use at trial.
The case involves a Cleveland, Ohio man and his conviction on multiple charges of abusing his girlfriend's two young children.
Darius Clark moved in with his girlfriend and her children in 2008. Two years later, after caring for the children the night before, Clark dropped off the woman's 3-year-old son, identified in court documents as "L.P." at a Head Start center.
One of the child's teachers noticed the boy's left eye appeared bloodshot and swollen and asked him how he got hurt.
According to the teacher, the boy initially claimed that he'd fallen, but after another teacher intervened the youngster said Clark had hurt him.
The school reported the incident to a state child-abuse hotline, and Clark was eventually charged with felony assault on the boy, felonious assault of the other child, and multiple counts of endangering children and domestic violence.
A state court judge found L.P. unfit to testify at Clark's trial because the boy made inconsistent statements at a pretrial hearing. However, the judge did allow L.P.'s teachers and other adult witnesses to testify about the boy's statements to them regarding his injuries.
Clark was convicted on all but one charge and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
A state appellate court reversed the decision, ruling that the testimony from the teachers violated Clark's right to confront witnesses against him. A divided Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's ruling in October 2013, holding that the admission of L.P.'s statements to his teachers violated Clark's right to confrontation."
In dissent Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said her colleagues' decision not only created confusion in the state's case law, but also threatened "the safety of our children."
The state then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to clarify when statements to non-law enforcement personnel implicate the confrontation clause is they are used at a trial.
The state also asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter because the Ohio Supreme Court ruling conflicts with those of the highest courts of several other states on statements to teachers about possible abuse.
Clark's lawyers in the Cuyahoga County public defender's office filed a brief urging the justices not to take the case arguing is a poor vehicle for deciding the issue.
"It is an extreme case in which the hearsay statements of a young child, who was ruled incompetent to testify because his answers to judicial questioning were uniformly inconsistent, were the only evidence identifying the respondent."
"[A]ny decision this Court might render in reviewing the Ohio Supreme Court's Confrontation Clause ruling would have no impact on the admissibility of the disputed evidence," the brief said.
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