New Pennsylvania laws may hurt defendants’ rights

Criminal Defense
By Goodwin Como, P.C.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed six new bills into laws. All of them are designed, at least in theory, to give the victims of crime more rights during trials.

The problem is that some of those bills may be taking rights away from the defendants in the cases. Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stated that some of the laws may, in fact, be unconstitutional and impair the ability of a defendant to get a fair trial in court.

Naturally, the victim of a crime is always important in a case. But the accused has special privileges that go beyond the rights of victims for a reason. No matter what, the accused is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that presumption has to be carefully preserved. Expanding the rights of victims is a noble idea, but one that may have a practical effect of making the accused all-but-certain of being convicted.

Some of the new laws expand the times that the court can use pre-recorded testimony in a trial — including from children and victims with intellectual disabilities like autism. The ACLU pointed out that prosecutors may then be able to introduce statements that weren’t made under oath into court. That could bar defense attorneys from being able to question the witnesses face-to-face on cross-examination — something that’s a guaranteed right for the defendant. These kinds of witnesses were already protected by law in court. They were already shielded from aggressive cross-examination and permitted to have a caregiver with them during their testimony.

The governor’s only response was to say that the laws won’t be abused and “I’m not a big believer in slippery slope arguments.”

All victims matter — but so do the rights of the accused in a criminal trial. More than ever before, it’s important to have an experienced defense attorney protecting your interests if you stand accused of a crime.