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Lack of evidence leaves a cloud over child-rape case

12-11-2010 Illinois:

Trial highlights challenges surrounding one of the most sensitive areas of justice, experts say

After midnight, when he no longer had homework or theater rehearsals to distract him, David Goodman would leave his Champaign fraternity house, lock himself in his car and make desperate phone calls to his family.

For the three years he awaited trial on charges he raped a 5-year-old boy when he was a summer camp counselor in Lake Forest, his terror never subsided, he said. He considered suicide, figuring if he were sent to prison as a convicted child molester, he'd be killed anyway, he said.

"It's a life sentence, but in my mind it's a death sentence," said Goodman, 24, of Chicago.

His three years in what he called "an unbelievable hell"
ended last month when a Lake County judge found him not guilty on all charges in a case his lawyers and family insist should never have been prosecuted.

Prosecutors never claimed to have much evidence beyond the boy's account, his mother's hearsay and her son's diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder after camp. Assistant Lake County State's Attorney Ari Fisz said his office brought the case because prosecutors believed the boy, and Fisz said after the acquittal, he still believed him.

Defense lawyer Steven Miller said officers from the Lake County sheriff's department and prosecutors had to ignore a "small mountain of evidence" to believe the boy, including discrepancies between his version of what happened and his mother's description. The boy, now 8, also gave an account at trial that appeared to contradict itself and didn't match his earlier statements, Miller said.

The case highlights challenges surrounding one of the most sensitive areas of justice, experts say. Children's advocates, pediatricians and prosecutors say kids rarely lie about sexual abuse, and it is crucial their allegations aren't greeted with the dismissive skepticism that has stigmatized sexual assault victims.

But advocates and prosecutors also say they rarely find physical evidence or witnesses, and many sexual assault cases rely on the word of the accuser. In a system that calls for guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors are left to assess the credibility of an alleged child victim before bringing a case that can have grave consequences for the accuser and the suspect.

"Even if they question this child in the best possible way, with no physical evidence and a 5-year-old victim, it's very difficult to be certain," said Bruce Boyer, a child-welfare law specialist at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. ..Source.. by Dan Hinkel, Tribune reporter

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