HOLLIDAYSBURG - A second-grade girl testified Friday about sexual abuse as she and her mother sat in a fourth-floor room of the Blair County Courthouse and while others in the case, including the defendant, lawyers and a judge, were in a second-floor courtroom.
The unusual procedure was approved by Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle in early November during preparations for a preliminary hearing involving Michael Eugene Finnegan, 29, of Altoona who was charged with 11 child sexual-abuse offenses.
Because of the girl's testimony, Magisterial District Judge Todd F. Kelly dismissed rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault charges.
But he found there was enough evidence to try Finnegan for indecent assault, endangering the welfare of a child and corruption of a minor. The first two charges are felonies of the third degree and the third is a misdemeanor.
The mother said the girl was frightened by Finnegan and she said she did not believe the child would be able to speak freely and maybe not be able to talk at all if she had to see Finnegan in the same room.
Doyle granted permission to have the child testify out of Finnegan's presence, an unusual move because a person charged with a crime has the right to confront his accuser.
Kelly first conducted a hearing to determine if the child was competent to testify under oath. He agreed she could testify after the youngster said she knew the difference between a lie and the truth.
Defense attorney Theodore J. Krol was pleased with the outcome of the hearing because in her testimony the youngster related that Finnegan "rubbed" her but did not commit the acts of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse or aggravated indecent assault.
These felony charges carry with them mandatory sentences of at least a decade in prison.
The girl's story was different from the information police received from the girl's mother who reported the girl was abused by Finnegan last summer.
Initial information was that Finnegan had raped the youngster and committed other serious crimes.
When the youngster had a chance to tell her story, she said while fully clothed, Finnegan rubbed parts of his body against her, Krol said.
Blair County Assistant District Attorney Dan Kiss said the 7-year-old girl "did very, very well" on the witness stand. He said the child was under a great deal of stress and her hands were shaking.
The use of videoconference allowing a child to testify out of the presence of her suspected attacker has occurred only once before at the courthouse.
Krol said the video transmission was projected onto a courtroom wall and he thought depiction of the youngster was not clear, which, he said, should be corrected because it is important for those in the courtroom to have a clear view of the witness' facial expressions.
Kiss said he will have to receive court permission if the girl is to testify in a separate room during Finnegan's upcoming trial.
It's not a perfect system, said Kiss, but he said for child victims, "it is important to have the system in place."
Finnegan remains in Blair County Prison under $200,000 bail and a detainer for parole violation.
Another young girl, a first-grader, is expected to testify in February using the same method against Dennis J. Stehley, 57, when he comes to trial for the alleged kidnapping and rape of a child.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.