Blog reader Sylvia Ornstein, a public defender in New Jersey, has brought to my attention the pending case of State v. Nyhammer, 396 N.J. Super. 72, 932 A.2d 33 (A.D. 2007), which she won in the Appellate Division and is now on review by the state supreme court. The defendant is accused of sexual abuse of a child, A.N., who made a videotaped statement to investigators for the prosecutor describing an incident of abuse. According to the court,
At trial, A.N., then age eleven, testified. Despite many attempts by the prosecutor, she was non-responsive to many questions. She was unable to testify that defendant touched her inappropriately, despite leading questions, although she did write his name on the blackboard. The transcript of her testimony discloses many “no response” notations instead of answers to questions. When the prosecutor used anatomically correct dolls, asking A.N. to indicate where she had been touched or what part of a boy's body she had seen, A.N. made no response. Further, A.N. was unresponsive to the following questions: “has [defendant] touched you anywhere?” and “can you show us what they touched you with on your private area?”Referring to Owens, the court said:
On cross-examination, defense counsel could not elicit recollections from A.N. on questions going to the heart of the charges. She did not describe on direct or cross-examination the acts described in her videotaped statement. Neither did she corroborate her accusation that defendant engaged in sexual activity from the videotaped statement.
A.N.'s complete inability to present current beliefs about any of the material facts, or to testify about her prior statements, is distinguishable from a situation where a trial witness for the prosecution simply has a bad memory.Thus, admission of the statement was error.
I think this is the right conclusion. This was a failure, or inability, to testify, not simple bad memory. And I don’t think the proper result would change if the child said, “I don’t remember” instead of declining to respond altogether. If cross was adequate in this case, then I don’t see how it can ever be deemed inadequate so long as the witness is able to go to the witness stand and take the oath. But if that is all the witness is able to do, how can one reasonably say the accused has gotten the benefits of cross-examination? All the accused has been able to show is that at this moment, in these circumstances, the witness is no better able to answer questions than is a corpse.
I'd be curious to know whether readers are familiar with other cases presenting similar facts.