WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in a case questioning whether the statements made by a 3-1/2-year-old boy to his preschool teachers about suspected child abuse qualified as “testimonial hearsay.”
In March 2010, teachers at a Cleveland preschool noticed injuries on the face of the child. As required by Ohio law, the teachers took the child, referred to in the case as L.P., out of the classroom and asked him what happened and who hurt him. L.P. said that “Dee,” his mother’s boyfriend Darius Clark, who had injured him. The teachers then reported the issue to Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services.
Clark was indicted on felony assault, child endangerment and domestic violence charges. He pled not guilty but was convicted of all charges, save one, and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
While the case involves child abuse, the high court’s decision will not necessarily impact laws regarding that crime. Instead, the justices could rule on issues of judiciary proceedings involving witnesses who may not be fit to testify in court, including witnesses that may be deemed “incompetent,” and what role teachers and other non-traditional law-enforcement figures play in discovering and reporting suspected crimes.
Before the initial trial, an Ohio judge declared L.Pwas “incompetent” to testify in court because of his age. The same judge, though, permitted the teachers and other adults who spoke to L.P. to testify despite the defense’s objection, essentially permitting the child’s statements away from court to be used in the trial, although L.P. was not be present.
Upon appeal, an Ohio appellate court found that the lower court violated defendant Clark’s rights to confront witnesses testifying against him under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and awarded him a new trial. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the appellate court.
Legal counsel representing Ohio argued Monday that the Ohio Supreme Court erred in its ruling because L.P.’s accusations were made to teachers who were acting in the interest of safety, not as law-enforcement officials.
“Teachers aren’t in the business of prosecution and they aren’t in the business of collecting evidence,” said Ilana Eisenstein, assistant solicitor general at the Department of Justice, in her argument for Ohio.
Some of the justices seemed to agree.
“The primary purpose [of the teachers’ questioning], it seems to me, is the well-being of the child,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Therefore, the statements should be acknowledged as hearsay and not testimony, preventing the “confrontation clause” from applying.
But Ginsburg still seemed to have misgivings about the reliability of the child’s statements. She asked how a court could rule that L.P. was not fit to testify but also deemed his statements reliable enough to present in the trial. Justice Elena Kagan said L.P. was too young to understand the legal consequences of his statements, therefore his words should not qualify as out-of-court testimony
On the other hand, Clark’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, asserted that the teachers were playing an equivalent role to that of law-enforcement officials. From the teachers’ point of view, he argued, the questioning of L.P. was testimonial in nature, and Clark should have been allowed to confront L.P. in court.
“All I’m asking for before you put someone away for  years,” Fisher said, “is to give them what the state has. ”