ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Special Appeals on Tuesday upheld sex offense and child abuse convictions against a Harford County man, rejecting his claim that his victim should have been forced to testify in public.
Robert Ciana Carter said the trial judge was wrong to clear the courtroom of spectators when his victim, who was 14 at the time, testified against him. Carter was later convicted of molesting the girl, his wife’s daughter, from the time she was 2 until she was 7.
But a three-judge panel of the appellate court ruled that there was a compelling need to protect the girl and that Harford Circuit Judge Thomas E. Marshall did not abuse his discretion in the case.
Carter was charged in December 1996 with rape, second- and third-degree sexual offenses, attempted sodomy and child abuse of the girl, who was the first witness in his March 1997 trial.
Before the girl took the stand, prosecutors asked that the public leave the courtroom during the child’s testimony and the judge agreed.
Defense attorneys objected, claiming Carter’s constitutional right to a public trial would be violated if the girl were allowed to testify out of sight of the public. They also noted the girl was 14, going on 15.
But Marshall was not swayed.
“I know she’s not 3 or 4 years old, I know she’s 14,” the judge said. “Quite frankly, I would be more inclined to grant the motion (to clear the courtroom) when the child is 14 than when the child is 3, so it doesn’t change my thinking at all.”
He then ordered the public out of the courtroom.
In front of a small audience, the girl testified about sexual acts that began with fondling when she was 2 and grew to lying on the couch with Carter when she was 5 or 6, when he would have her help him masturbate, once to the point of ejaculation.
She testified that Carter would lie on top of her and rub his penis against her. She recalled falling asleep fully clothed and waking up to find Carter lying naked next to her, having removed her shorts and socks.
After her testimony, Marshall reopened the courtroom to spectators.
Carter was convicted of three counts each of second- and third-degree sexual offense and one count of child abuse and sentenced to 105 years in prison, with all but 20 suspended. He will also have to serve five years of probation after he is released from jail.
In his opinion for the appeals court, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. noted that Marshall “excluded the public from the courtroom for a specific length of time, the duration of the victim’s testimony, and for reasons linked to a justifiable compelling need.”
The court also noted the girl’s comments on the stand that she was “glad the courtroom — that we didn’t have to go public again, because I don’t think I could last too much longer.”
“We find that the court, in tailoring its exclusion of the public as described, acted within its permissible range of discretion,” Harrell wrote.
Neither Carter’s attorneys nor the lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office who handled the appeal for the state could be reached Tuesday to comment on the ruling.