In the modern era, though, there are increasingly many situations where mere accusation by one individual is enough to convict, even (in fact, especially) when that individual is a child. At The Texas Observer, Maurice Chammah has a story that highlights the conundrum created by uncorroborated accusations titled, "The Recanters: What happens when abuse claims come undone." The main protagonist in Chammah's featured horror story says she was "bullied her into accusing her stepfather" by a social worker at age eight during a three-and-a-half hour interview. Her testimony on the stand contradicted itself and included incredible, unlikely accusations, like her stepfather bathing her vagina with a washcloth filled with broken glass. After his conviction, she was shipped off to foster care; the state thought her mother unfit because she refused to believe her husband was guilty. Ironically, she told Chammah, in foster care she really was molested by a foster parent in Killeen. Whether or not the stepfather was guilty - and both he and the alleged victim insist he was not - it seems impossible to argue the state's intervention benefited the child.
Wrote Chammah, "Advocates for the wrongfully convicted and advocates for child victims both understand the difficulties of child witnesses. They agree that their memories are more malleable than an adult’s. Both see that problem as evidence that their side is losing." The Texas Legislature, for its part, keeps amending the law to make it easier to secure convictions in such cases without corroboration:
Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman passed Senate Bill 12, which will allow prosecutors to introduce evidence against child-sex assault defendants of prior offenses, including accusations by other children. “Very often it’s hard for jurors to believe the testimony of a small child, especially when there is no physical evidence,” Huffman, a former Houston prosecutor and judge, told me. Often, so much time has passed before the child comes forward that any physical evidence has washed away or healed over.Both concerns are legitimate. I agree that child molestation cases - especially accusations of long-ago abuse with no physical evidence - are difficult to prosecute. I also agree that changing the law to reduce the amount of evidence against a defendant necessary to convict is likely to send more innocent people in prison. Texas' many DNA exonerations in sex assault cases show that even uncorroborated adult testimony can lead to false convictions.
Kristin Etter of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association told lawmakers that the bill “will lead to more wrongful convictions.”
Which brings me back to the "two or three witnesses" standard promulgated in Mosaic law and repeated in the New Testament by both Christ and the Apostle Paul. There is real wisdom in that requirement. As stories of "the recanters" remind us, accusations are not proof.
RELATED: See earlier Grits coverage of Huffman's bill here and here.