ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Court of Appeals will hear arguments Monday on whether “inaction” is enough reason to convict in a child sexual abuse case.
Assistant Public Defender John Kopolow said his client, Sharon Degren, should not have been found guilty of child sexual abuse for failing to stop her husband, Nick Degren, from sexually molesting a 12-year-old La Plata girl left in the couple’s care for a few days in June and August 1996.
A Charles County Circuit Court jury found Sharon Degren guilty in April 1997 of four counts of child sexual abuse, court records show. She was sentenced in June 1997 to 10 years in prison with all but five years suspended.
Sharon Degren appealed to Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals, which in February upheld the lower court’s decision.
The child testified that Sharon Degren was present during the molesting incidents and once gave verbal approval of the sexual acts, which included an episode in the couple’s bed at their Waldorf apartment, according to court records.
Nick Degren pleaded guilty in February 1997 to one count of second-degree rape and one count of second-degree sex offense, said Matt Stiglitz, assistant state’s attorney in Charles County. Nick Degren was sentenced in April 1997 to 10 years for the rape and seven years for the sex offense, to be served simultaneously, Stiglitz said.
Kopolow said Maryland law does not define as abuse a person’s choosing to not act. In a legal brief filed with the Court of Appeals, Kopolow said “a person of ordinary intelligence is not likely to assume the `act’ means `not act’ ” and cannot “be expected to know that he or she may be criminally liable for sexual child abuse by doing nothing.”
But the state’s brief countered that “an adult who is responsible for a child is guilty of child abuse when she knowingly fails to protect the child from abuse.”
Gary Bair, chief of the Criminal Appeals Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, said the courts have established that when caring for a child, failure to act in a situation of physical abuse is abuse. Bair said the finding of guilt in child sexual abuse shouldn’t be any different.
Kopolow said his client is also appealing on the grounds that comments made to the jury in the state’s closing argument “undermine the presumption of innocence.” The state argued Degren had great reason to lie, since she is a defendant in a criminal trial. Bair said lawyers are given a lot of leeway in their closing arguments. There was no evidence these comments impacted the jury’s decisions, he said. -30-