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Protesters Didn’t Taint Missouri Abuse Trial

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) - A biker group that advocates for abused children did not taint a criminal trial with peaceful demonstrations at the courthouse, a Missouri appeals court ruled.

After a Buchanan County jury convicted him of using two children, ages 5 and 7, in a sexual performance, Willis Hartman appealed on the basis that he was prejudiced by a biker group's demonstration in and around the Buchanan County courthouse during his trial.

"Bikers Against Child Abuse" is an international organization that describes its mission as an "intent to create a safer environment for abused children."

When BACA members expressed interest in attending Hartman's trial, the court set specific guidelines to ensure that their presence did not influence the jury.

Hartman claims that the restrictions were not enough, noting that the court allowed his two young victims to wear vests with BACA's logo on the back when they took the stand.

A three-judge appellate panel affirmed Hartman's conviction on Tuesday, finding that the trial court had taken proper precautions to ensure a fair trial.

"The trial court here should be commended for its extreme vigilance to guarantee that Hartman received a fair trial in an atmosphere free from impermissible factors," Judge Gary Witt wrote for the court. "There is no evidence, beyond speculation, that any impermissible influence reached or could have reached the jury."

Witt cited numerous steps taken by the trial court to protect Hartman's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, including limiting the courtroom to only four BACA members at a time, and removing any child-abuse awareness signs from courthouse property.

Hartman mostly relied on public defender Michelle Davidson's testimony, because she witnessed the BACA members gathered outside the courtroom, and allegedly saw the two victims with the group holding teddy bears.

Davidson did not claim to see any child-abuse messages displayed, however. She only identified the bikers through, what she claimed was "something around their neck," which she thought "that involved motorcycles," according to the ruling.

This evidence did not impress the appeals court, as Witt explained that there was no evidence that any messages were communicated to the jury, and nothing indicating that the BACA members failed to comply with a court instruction that they not display badges, vests or signs outside the courthouse.

Hartman's challenge of the victim's vests also failed to convince the panel that he was entitled to a new trial.

"The record shows that no questions were asked regarding the meaning of BACA, there is no indication that any effort was made to focus attention on the vests, and nothing indicates that the jury was informed regarding the meaning," the 24-page opinion states.

Judges Joseph Ellis and Zel Fischer concurred in the ruling.

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