KANSAS CITY (AP) - Prosecutors and the parents of molestation victims are supporting a proposed constitutional amendment in Missouri that would allow evidence of past criminal behavior to be used in child sex abuse prosecutions.
Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, who wrote the proposed amendment that Missouri voters will consider in fall 2014, said the state is unusually restrictive in what it allows prosecutors to tell jurors, The Kansas City Star reported.
But federal courts and 15 states, including Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, permit prosecutors to introduce evidence of past criminal acts with few or no exceptions. Other states, including Kansas, permit that evidence in some circumstances.
Missouri, though, excludes the evidence in almost all situations.
"This amendment impacts cases involving dangerous, repeat sex offenders preying on our most vulnerable citizens: children," he said. "By its very nature, child sex abuse occurs behind closed doors, and there is often very little evidence other than a child's word against that of the abuser."
Under the amendment, prosecutors could tell jurors about a defendant's past sex offenses, even allegations for which the person never faced charges, in cases involving victims who are younger than 18. A trial judge still would have to decide whether jurors would hear about the past crimes.
Critics say the measure would let prosecutors give unwarranted weight to allegations of past wrongdoings rather than focus on the merits of the current criminal charges.
"If the prosecutor doesn't have a good case, then he or she doesn't have a good case and should not try to use character assassination to put people in prison," said Kim Benjamin, the president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "That is just un-American, to use rumor and innuendo and character assassination to take away someone's liberty."
One Platte County case illustrates how the issue plays out in court. Daryl D. Lemasters, a 54-year-old Platte County man who volunteered for overnight camping trips with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, was sentenced in August to 180 years in prison. Jurors convicted him of repeatedly sexually assaulting two girls, taking videos of one of them while they were naked and offering to take them to a water park in exchange for sexual acts.
The victims' mother said Lemasters might have been persuaded to plead guilty before the case went to trial and spared her daughters the ordeal of testifying if prosecutors had been able to tell jurors about previous sexual abuse allegations.
Through the investigation, authorities heard from other girls who said Lemasters molested them. The mother of the girls he was convicted of molesting wishes those claims could have been used as evidence.