When a jury heads back to deliberate, the interview of a child abuse victim can often make or break the case.
“A few minutes in a forensic interview can be the difference between an acquittal and a conviction,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Wanda Vance said.
With new recording equipment and forensic technology on the way, Edmondson-Telford Center for Children Executive Director Heather Hayes said the arriving materials will create a “tremendous ripple effect” in the community regarding child abuse.
“We collect the best evidence we can off of our child victims,” Hayes said. “Prosecution has the best evidence they can put forward in their case as well as the community can be safer if it ends up getting a dangerous sex offender off the street.”
The center was awarded the Signature Grant from the Junior League of Gainesville-Hall County, giving more than $43,000 to the children’s group.
Hayes said the grant will allow them to update the camera and recording equipment as well as purchase a colposcope, a device to examine genitalia in a high magnification.
“DNA analysis and the collection of DNA and how we preserve it — that technology also is advancing so rapidly we’ve fallen far behind in what we were able to collect as evidence,” Hayes said.
The last update on cameras and recording equipment came in 2004; the colposcope was a model from the 1990s.
“It was large and cumbersome to the point where we really couldn’t use it very often,” Hayes said.
Signature Grant Committee co-chair Lauren Samples said a committee received about 30 applications before the vote by members.
“I really think that was impactful to the membership to hear that the money spent on this equipment would directly lead to prosecutions and putting people away,” Samples said.
The Junior League awarded $75,000 in total, with the remaining $31,653 given to Family Promise to “benefit a great number of families” with renovation of transitional housing, Samples said.
Updating the camera equipment allows for different ways to examine a suspected child abuse victim with tools stronger than what the naked eye can perceive.
“You may actually see skin damage that you wouldn’t have been otherwise able to see,” Hayes said.
It all adds up, Hayes said, to providing the prosecution with the best evidence that “can a lot of times be the difference in a jury of 12 being able to understand that evidence.”
“From our perspective, the big thing this does ultimately is to help keep children out of court and make sure when they do have to testify, that there’s good evidence to support their testimony,” Vance said.
Because of an accused defendant’s constitutional right to face one’s accuser, children must often come into the courtroom unless a rare exception is made.
“If the evidence that we get from the ET Center is strong enough, we can encourage a plea agreement before the child ever has to take the witness stand or come into a courtroom,” Vance said.
Good evidence protects children, Vance said, from being traumatized again and leading to a potential conviction. In the past, poor recordings have made it difficult to understand the testimony and have raised concerns on appeal, Vance said.
Hayes said the center hopes to have the equipment within the next several weeks.