The victim in a Cheshire County assault case backed out of taking the witness stand this summer after learning her testimony would be livestreamed on the internet, a practice that is coming under criticism from prosecutors and a victim-advocacy group.
Cheshire County Attorney Chris McLaughlin this week said the victim’s decision forced his office to drop second-degree assault charges against a Franklin Pierce University student.
The woman, also a university student, told prosecutors she didn’t want the defendant’s college friends watching from their dormitory rooms and recording her testimony, McLaughlin said.
“I don’t believe the court needs to livestream to the world a New Hampshire trial to comply with the constitutional provision to have a public trial,” McLaughlin said.
The policy may be changing. In an email, Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said she is in discussions with the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse about options to protect the identities of domestic violence victims while preserving public access to court proceedings.
The Cheshire County case is the first known instance of a victim refusing to go to trial after learning about new court procedures instituted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After suspending trials for six months, the New Hampshire court system resumed trials in late August. The first trials were piloted at the Cheshire County Superior Court, and Hillsborough County Superior Court held its first trial in Manchester this week.
Many of the pandemic-related guidelines represent an attempt to limit crowds and unnecessary exposure. Because the Constitution guarantees a public trial, the guidelines called for livestreaming the trial.
“We certainly don’t want secret trials,” said John Newman, the defense lawyer in the Cheshire County case. “There is a right to a public trial, and streaming is a way during a pandemic to make a trial a public trial.”
Earlier this week, Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon and the coalition criticized the practice.
Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the coalition, said the guidelines were written without input from her organization, crisis centers or victim-witness advocates in prosecutors’ offices.
She said she is not surprised by the Cheshire County victim’s decision. Victims grapple with such feelings all the time when they bring forward cases involving intimate-partner violence or sexual assault.
“This is the worst-case scenario, and this is what we are going to continue to see if we don’t change our policies,” she said.
Sexton said she heard from the court system after the New Hampshire Union Leader first reported on the livestreaming practice on Wednesday.
McLaughlin said his office was scheduled to try two cases in August. The first involved an assault on a police officer, and no one objected to the livestream.
He said the courthouse also provided a video feed to an unused courtroom, where anyone who wanted to watch the trial could do so. That way court bailiffs would be on hand to prevent any inappropriate behavior, such as videotaping testimony, he said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court in Concord resumed trials. Federal court trial guidelines call for a video feed into an overflow courtroom. No more than 15 members of the public and media are allowed in the overflow courtroom. Admission is on a first-come, first-serve basis, and once capacity is reached, no one else is allowed in the courthouse.
In the state court system, trials are livestreamed through the court website. Viewers must agree they won’t record the session. But McLaughlin laughed about the effectiveness of such an online pledge.
“Is it like the agreement you click on when you get an app? Do you read the three-page agreement?” He said it’s unclear whether a recording would violate a law or just a court rule.
Meanwhile, in the first trial to be held at Hillsborough County Superior Court North, Judge Will Delker issued a directed verdict and declared the defendant not guilty before the jury got the case.
John Westcott, 37, had faced a charge of violating a temporary restraining order.