Bill aims to limit judicial trauma following child sex abuse

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Many children who have been sexually abused say they are re-traumatized by the New Mexico judicial system.

It allows attorneys to question victims over and over, making them re-live the horrors of the assault.

Gabriella Herrera, 24, was raped when she was 12 years old.

As a child, she said she felt stressed and anxious each time defense attorneys made her go over the details of that rape.

"I went through multiple interviews to basically answer the same questions constantly," Herrera said. "I felt like I was jumping through hoops to prove I was telling the truth against people who tried to make me feel like I was lying."

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says some cases fall apart because child victims and their families are traumatized during the interviews.

He’s sponsoring a bill to change how the system works.

"I think the passage of this bill improves the chances that we get a truthful testimony in court, and we get fewer victims dropping out because they are so scared and terrified that they don’t want to move forward," Torrez said.

House Bill 143 cleared its first House panel this week. The bill ensures defense attorneys cannot question child victims or adults with special needs.

Instead, a therapist trained to work with children who have experienced trauma can interview the child on camera. Attorneys can gather facts prior to the trial by using that one interview.

Attorneys would still be able to put the child on the stand in a trial, which is guaranteed by the 6th amendment of the Constitution.

"I believe New Mexico has an obligation to protect victims of crimes," said Rep. Meredith Dixon who is sponsoring the bill. "In fact, our state has a constitutional amendment that ensures victims of crimes are treated with fairness, respect and dignity throughout the entire criminal justice process."

During debates between lawmakers, defense attorneys argued that they have a right to ask questions to understand the truth on behalf of their clients.

"Limiting pretrial interviews is the most concerning part of this bill. I have almost never seen repeat interviews of a vulnerable victim by defense council," said Kim Chavez Cook of the Law Offices of the Public Defenders. "They do one interview and that repeat interview is not usually the result of a defense interview and it is so crucial to provide effective defense of counsel and due process to actually interview a witness."

House Bill 143 will next be heard in the House Judiciary Committee.