Michigan Supreme Court Hears Important Child Sexual Abuse Hearsay Issue

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Bay County Prosecutor’s appeal in People v. Burns, Supreme Court No. 145604  The Court asked the parties to address the following issues:

(1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the complainant’s out-of-court statements under MRE 804(b)(6)’s forfeiture-by-wrongdoing hearsay exception; and

(2) whether the Court of Appeals substituted its judgment for that of the trial court and, in so doing, invaded the trial court’s fact-finding authority. 

The trial court admitted hearsay statements made the child complainant told to a SANE Nurse and other hearsay statements. During the forensic interview, the interviewer got the complainant to say that the defendant told the child not “to say anything.” The State argued that this constitutes forfeiture by wrongful conduct, e.g. that because the defendant caused the state to lose the evidence, he/she cannot complain. The Court of Appeals disagreed noting there was no threat which accompanied the statement.

Child sexual abuse cases are difficult because the child complainant is often a poor witness. Prosecutors traditionally try to bolster their evidence with hearsay prior consistent statements. This is another attempt to extend the rules to allow this evidence. While everyone’s heart goes out to the victims of true child sexual abuse, the evidence is very dangerous because it is the product of suggestive interviews and people tend to believe statements the more times they hear it regardless of the truth. Criminal defense attorneys need to be vigilant to exclude this evidence.

The docketing report can be accessed
here. Here is a link to the Court of Appeals opinion. The Michigan Supreme Court invited the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan to file briefs amicus curiae briefs in this case. Valerie Newman from SADO Detroit is representing the Defendant; Sylvia Linton from the Bay County County Prosecutor’s Office in Bay City is representing the State