U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Ohio child abuse case

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether Ohio prosecutors acted constitutionally when they relied on what a child-abuse victim told his teachers to win conviction of a Cleveland man for felonious assault.

Acting on an appeal by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and prosecutors from Cuyahoga County, the justices agreed yesterday to hear the case, with oral arguments scheduled early next year.

The Ohio Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Darius Clark last year because he was not given the right to confront his accuser. Because the child was so young, he was not deemed competent to testify at the trial, forcing prosecutors to rely on what he told his preschool teachers about the abuse.

The 4-3 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court prompted a sharp dissent from Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who wrote that “the very people who have the expertise and opportunity to recognize child abuse are now prohibited in Ohio from testifying about any out-of-court statements that a child makes about abuse or neglect when the child, for whatever reason, is unable to testify,” adding that children in Ohio “will go unprotected.”

According to case records, in 2008, Clark moved in with his girlfriend, who had a 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. In 2010, while his girlfriend was out of town, Clark dropped the young boy off at a Head Start center in Cleveland where one of the teachers noticed injuries around his left eye.

Eventually, the young boy said Clark had caused the injuries. Physicians later determined that both the boy and his sister were suffering from injuries.

Because the boy was not allowed to testify at Clark’s trial, the judge allowed school officials to testify about what the boy told them. Clark was convicted of felonious assault on both the girl and the boy, who are not identified in court papers, and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

A state court of appeals threw out the conviction because Clark could not confront his accuser, and the state supreme court upheld that ruling.