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Court weighs if lawyers can compel child victims to testify

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Court of Appeals is considering whether defense attorneys should be able to compel children to testify against those accused of sexually abusing them or be allowed to avoid what their lawyers say causes more trauma.

Third District Judge James Blanch in October declined to block a subpoena ordering testimony from a girl who told investigators that a man she knew gave her alcohol and raped her in April, the Deseret News reported this week.

Lawyers for Ivan Michael Lopez, 28, argued that it’s his right to have his legal team cross-examine the girl and that state law does not prevent them from questioning her. They want the girl, who’s now 13, to take the stand at a preliminary hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence for trial.

“Crime victims do not have a right under Utah law to refuse to testify at court hearings when they have been lawfully served with a subpoena,” Lopez’s attorney, Jessica Jacobs, wrote in court filings.

Lopez has been charged with rape and aggravated sex abuse of a child and offering or furnishing alcohol to a minor. He has not yet entered pleas to the charges.

Attorneys for the girl argued that evidence of the crimes is strong and forcing her to testify would compound her trauma.

Cross-examining her “is the very type of traumatic and intimidating ordeal the Legislature was attempting to curb” in a list of crime victims’ rights noted in the state Constitution, the girl’s attorney, Bethany Warr, wrote in court documents.

Those who come forward as victims are entitled to be “treated with fairness, respect and dignity, and to be free from harassment and abuse throughout the criminal justice process,” Warr said.

Judge Blanch indicated that there is probable cause for Lopez to stand trial but that calling the child to testify is “not unreasonable,” he wrote, noting her maturity and age.

The Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic petitioned the state Supreme Court in November for permission to appeal the case. The review is now pending at the Court of Appeals.

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