State Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, told members of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee on Thursday prosecutors should be able to tell juries about crimes that defendants have committed or been accused of in the past.
Lawmakers have tried to authorize the admission of such evidence before through state law. But the the Missouri Supreme Court has struck down the law, throwing out that kind of evidence, called propensity evidence.
The court said the evidence is inadmissible because it violates a defendant's constitutional right to face their accuser and the constitutional right that someone be indicted by a grand jury before facing trial. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled specifically on whether such evidence should be admissible in criminal trials.
McCaherty acknowledged that his amendment would contradict provisions of the state and federal Constitutions that allow someone to face their accuser when they are accused of a crime.
But he said prosecutors need that kind of evidence to get convictions in such abuse cases because physical evidence often not available, as children sometimes report sexual abuse months or years after it occurs.
"The problem in this case is that the victim is six years old," he said. "You have the word of a six-year-old, who is sitting on the standing, being questioned by attorneys and reliving everything that has happened in her life, against a member of the community."
Jason Lamb, the Executive Director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, told committee members that the constitutional change is needed because young victims can be intimidated during a criminal trial .
"Children are children," he said. "They know what happened to them. They don't always know how to tell what happened to them."
Lamb called the proposed constitutional amendment "the single most powerful piece of legislation" that lawmakers could pass to protect children.
But the proposed amendment is getting some push back from people who say it could put defendants in the position of being guilty until proven innocent. The proposed amendment would let judges decide what evidence ultimately comes in and what doesn't.
But Rep. Mike Colona said he thinks elected judges would be reluctant to turn down any evidence in child sex cases.
"Don't get me wrong, of course we want to put these people away," said Colona, D-St. Louis. "But I don't want to create a scenario where a defendant is, kind of de facto, guilty before proven innocent."
Colona said he thinks juries are already inclined to believe children who are recounting something a traumatic as alleged sexual abuse. And he said defense lawyers already face many difficulties in cross-examining children and getting juries to remember their client's right to due process.
The proposed amendment would let judges decide what evidence comes in and what doesn't. But Colona said judges in the state who face elections would to turn down any evidence in child sex cases, for fear of being labeled as sympathetic to such crimes.
The measure is still pending before the crime prevention committee. If it passes both the House and Senate, it would go to a statewide vote in 2014.