Do parents belong on the witness stand?
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In the Massachusetts case, two 14-year-old boys were charged in June with raping a girl in their school. The parents of both boys talked to their sons about the incident, and prosecutors subpoenaed the parents to testify before a grand jury. "We feel it's important in weighing rights and privileges that the victim's right to redress should not be made secondary," says David Traub, a spokesman for the Norfolk County Attorney's Office, which is pressing for the parents to testify.Skip to next paragraph
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In an appeal last month, the state Supreme Judicial Court granted a temporary reprieve to the boys' parents until the end of the legislative session in July. The high court also said that any move to establish a parent-child privilege should come from the legislature, not the court.
While the SJC has the power to create a privilege by decree, it hasn't done so in more than 100 years. In the opinion for the court, Justice Roderick Ireland wrote that many sensitive issues are involved in creating a parent-child privilege - the age of the child, who is considered to be the parents, and how to handle child abuse and family violence.
For the most part, prosecutors believe confidential privileges make it harder to get convictions. They are watching the two Massachusetts bills - and their specific limitations - with caution.
What if a child confessed to his parents that he shot someone? "Should mom and dad be required to testify about that confession? Or can they be asked things like: 'Was Johnny home last night?' The possible ranges of a privilege are substantial," says Geline Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association in Boston.
As a lawyer and chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee, Senator Creem was familiar with many of the confidential privileges. But she says she never thought about the parent-child one until she saw Marcia Lewis being forced to testify in front of a grand jury about her daughter's relationship with President Clinton. "I said, 'I have a daughter. I can't believe that. That's terrible.' "
But Joseph Brodigan, who is representing one of the boys, draws a distinction between adult and minor children, and hopes the Massachusetts bill is limited to minors.
No matter the age of their children, many parents say they would simply refuse to testify. "There are many parents who would not be truthful if they had to testify against their kids," Creem says. "I know I would never go against the confidence of my children."
Besides, she says, "If all [prosecutors] have is the parent, they have a problem anyway."
Mr. Goldman agrees. As both a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, he has seen many parents forced to testify against their children. But he can't recall a single one where the parent's testimony was crucial.
"If 1 out of a million kids are not convicted, so be it," Goldman says. "The republic can get by without that."
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