I have spent the last 22 years teaching legal courses to college students and if there is one thing that I have learned, my students are living in a fast food world. These same students, especially the Criminal Justice students, need to understand that it is crucial to slow down and pay attention to details. I used to have one of the individuals that helped create the CAC of Cumberland County, Ron Snyder, guest lecture to my students. Ron had over 30 years’ experience in law enforcement and he shared with my students that to understand what a child victim has been through, you have to get on their level.
Ron explained how he spent hours on the floor with children playing cards, dolls, cars, etc., to gain a child’s trust and confidence. He stated that you simply can’t ask a child “what happened?” Children have to get to know you. Ron explained that it was imperative to know the rules of criminal evidence, so that once you gained a child’s trust and confidence, you could phrase the questions in such a manner to elicit the information from a child that complied with rules of criminal evidence and could be introduced at trial. Again, this takes time and attention to detail.
Many students do not realize that all attorneys do not take criminal evidence and procedure in law school as it is not always a required course. When law enforcement officers know the criminal rules of evidence, I consider it a win/win situation; if they process the evidence and ask the child the right questions, the rules have been followed and there is a great chance the case will not have to go to court. This takes time, and to the fast food generation, they want a quick answer.
One of my alumni was in her second year law school and doing a clerkship at the local prosecutor’s office. She worked on a case with the prosecuting attorney involving a little girl that had been a victim of sexual assault. The prosecuting and my former student both thought the young victim was well prepared to take the witness stand. The victim was doing great on the witness stand until the prosecuting attorney asked the victim a question that was not prepared for and the victim’s response produced a mistrial in the case. If the prosecuting attorney had taken the time to work with the young victim this likely would not have happened. Paying attention to detail and being patient with a child victim is crucial. My young alumni learned from this experience and is now a prosecuting attorney working on sexual assault cases.
It is important to slow down and realize that the best meals are not fast food, but ones that are prepared with time and effort. Meals that are prepared with the goal of having the best meal for all parties at the table. Like a well prepared meal, knowing the rules and being prepared is what needs to happen in all cases involving children.
Wendy Vonnegut, J.D.
Director of Legal Studioes