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Court denies new trial for sex abuse convict

A panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has refused to grant a new trial to a Bedford County man who is serving a 25- to 50-year sentence for child sexual abuse, but in its opinion the federal appeals court suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court review possible constitutional questions involving the prosecution of suspected child abusers.

The case involved Richard Max Crawford III, now 48, who was convicted more than a decade ago of 392 child sexual abuse counts with a close family member.

Bedford County Senior Judge Daniel Howsare imposed the lengthy sentence on Crawford in 2006, based on guilty verdicts returned by a jury that included multiple counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault and statutory rape, all occurring between 1992 and 1997.

Crawford was initially charged with 504 sexual offenses against the young child, but the jury found him not guilty of 112 counts.

The defendant, through Bedford County attorney Thomas Crawford (no relation), then went through Pennsylvania’s appeal process in which his request for a new trial was denied by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

In 2013, he filed a petition in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown maintaining that his constitutional rights under the Sixth Amendment were violated because prosecutors were unable to pin down when the child sexual abuse incidents occurred, not an unusual circumstance when it comes to prosecutions involving children.

Young children, the courts recognized, have trouble remembering times and dates when offenses occur and often don’t reveal the offenses until they are much older.

In the Bedford County case, the child waited several years before telling a friend about her involvement with Crawford.

The 3rd Circuit panel upheld the Superior Court decision denying Crawford a new trial and the decision by U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown, who dismissed Crawford’s federal petition.

The federal panel reviewed the case under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and concluded that, to grant Crawford’s wish for a new trial, it would require adopting a “specific legal rule” that normally lies within the realm of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court precedent in this area is very general and lacks a specific application to the problems encountered in prosecutions of child sexual abuse,” the 3rd Circuit panel stated.

It suggested the logical next step “from the Supreme Court’s decisions would be to hold that due process and the Sixth Amendment require a more particularized charging document on a case like this one; but then again, perhaps not.”

One of the most comprehensive reviews of the Crawford case was a 27-page recommendation presented to and adopted by Gibson and written by Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto.

Pesto concluded that the Superior Court ruling denying Crawford a new trial was not unreasonable, but in his opinion he outlined the problem faced by prosecutors in child sexual abuse cases.

“There is no fixed law in Pennsylvania on how to charge sexual offenses when a minor child alleges that many incidents of sexual abuse took place but is unable to fix the date with any degree of precision. The law tolerates a degree of imprecision in child sexual assault cases that would not be permitted in any other type of criminal prosecution,” Pesto wrote.

He went on to state that when a child alleges several, or even hundreds of offenses, but cannot pinpoint the dates, the prosecution has three options:

– To rule out prosecution.

– To permit one charge with the date defined as specifically as possible.

– To “tolerate imprecision in the indictment on the grounds that the social ill or sexual assault is worse than the prejudice to the particular defendant.”

He stated, “The Pennsylvania Superior Court in affirming (Crawford’s) conviction in this case, now clearly interprets the Due Process Clause according with the third option.”

Pesto concluded there is some effort by prosecutors and courts for a middle ground — possibly the second option.

He called it an option between “two unhappy choices.”

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