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This letter in response to a Dane County Circuit Court judge's recent decision to release to the media the recorded interview of a child who disclosed unimaginable abuse, torture and neglect. The release of the child’s interview conducted at Safe Harbor, Dane County's Child Advocacy Center, is significant because it could very well mark the first time in the country that a judge has released a child victim’s recorded statement before a case has reached disposition.
On Tuesday, during a hearing in this case, both the prosecutor and defense attorney asked the court to seal the interview in the court file until the case’s conclusion. Such requests are routinely granted, especially in sensitive cases such as this one.
Dissemination of recorded interviews of child victims to the media during the early stages of a prosecution does not happen for good reason. First, our justice system is based on both the state’s and the defendant’s right to a fair trial and an impartial jury. That fairness is jeopardized when potential jurors view such material and develop opinions about a case.
Importantly, once information of this nature is released, there are few to no safeguards with which to protect the child from being identified. These are safeguards to which these children are entitled. Upon release, it is then up to citizens and members of the media to ensure the video is aired or shared responsibly to protect the juvenile victim’s identity. I have received reports alleging that one Madison television station failed to fully block out the child’s face during a broadcast. This unfortunate event can act as a very real deterrent to other victims who fear their identity being publicly revealed if they report a crime.
Finally, the widespread dissemination of this material is devastating for crime victims, especially child victims of sensitive crimes. In this case, this unfortunate child’s statements, images, and pain will be in the public sphere and in cyberspace forever. Events like this erode any faith crime victims have that the criminal justice system can protect them and their privacy.
The media argue that they have a constitutional right to this information. We all can agree that open government is essential to our democracy. As every other right is balanced, we must be dutiful in balancing the rights of defendants, the public’s right to know, and the rights of victims.
Wisconsin holds the proud distinction of being the first state in the country to enact a Crime Victims Bill of Rights, which mandates that victims are to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect for their privacy. State law calls for judges to protect these rights in a manner no less vigorous than the protections afforded criminal defendants. The law also instructs the news media to use restraint in revealing the identity of child victims, especially in sensitive cases
Victims rely on these protections just as we, as a society, rely on victims to come forward and participate in the criminal justice system. It takes incredible courage to report a crime, especially for a child who is disclosing intrafamilial abuse. We owe this young victim and all crime victims dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity. It is difficult to reconcile the releasing of this interview with these basic rights.
The Department of Justice Office of Crime Victim Services continues its work to better protect victims and their rights, including ways to preserve the identity of victims in sensitive cases. If you or anyone you know is a crime victim and is in need of services, support or assistance, please call us at 608-264-9497.