SALEM — Civil rights activists, defense lawyers and journalists voiced concern Monday, March 20, over legislation that would give pseudonyms to sex crime victims and witnesses in grand jury indictments and keep their names out of public court records.
District attorneys and victim advocates say the bill is designed to protect victims and their families who might otherwise refuse to testify in front of a grand jury out of fear of retribution from the defendant. They said that is especially true in the case of accused sex traffickers who may have multiple victims.
"The fear of victims testifying against their traffickers cannot be over exaggerated," said Nita Belles, executive director of In Our Backyard, a Bend-based anti-human trafficking nonprofit organization. "They and (their families) have been threatened, and the traffickers have carried out enough threats against them in the past to make believers out of them."
However, opponents argued during a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the proposal would violate the public's constitutional rights to open courts and an open press.
Journalists are "sympathetic to those victims of sex crimes who are often required to relive their experiences multiple times throughout the trial process," said Keith Shipman of the Oregon Association of Broadcasters. "However, our member stations are concerned about the unusually broad nature of Senate Bill 248, particularly the recently released … amendments and that they may adversely impact the public's right to know, particularly if that person involved is a public trustee."
The legislation would allow prosecutors to use pseudonyms for sex crime victims and witnesses during grand jury indictment proceedings. Once a suspect was arraigned, the defendant's attorney would receive the names of the victims and witnesses, but those names would still be sealed from public records.
"All this bill would do is protect victims' names from public record, associates and family members in case after case that I see where family members and associates intimidate victims and try to prevent them from coming to court, knowing that their testimony is key, especially in sexual assault crimes," said Jr Ujifusa, deputy district attorney with Multnomah County, who spoke on behalf of Oregon District Attorneys Association
Several other states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, Maine and Texas, have similar laws or legislation, Ujifusa said.
This bill would provide the same information to the defense as they receive now, but that information would come several days later at the time of arraignment, he said.
The Oregon legislation is unique in that it shields the names of witnesses and not just victims, said Gail Meyer of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
"I don't know of any other state law — I haven't seen one — that would allow for secrecy in respect to the witnesses who testify before the grand jury," Meyer testified.
Grand jury proceedings already are shrouded in secrecy. Testimony is not required to be recorded, though another bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee would change that.
"We don't have a clue of what goes on in a grand jury except by the name of the witnesses that appear on the indictment," Meyer said. "That is our only clue. The clue is a big one for us because it can tell us how broad and how narrow of a focus the government is making out of the allegations."
Meyer and several private investigators gave examples of sex crime cases in which the name of the accuser helped investigators to find information that exonerated the defendant.
"By enshrining the details of an indictment from public view in other cases, severely impacts the ability of the defense to marshal and get going on other facts as they might be disclosed," Meyer said.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, and Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, and came out of a work group on victim safety.