Nevada panel considers bill allowing victim hearsay in court

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A bill up for debate in the Nevada Legislature would allow prosecutors to present an alleged victim's written or recorded statement to police, rather than their in-person testimony in a courtroom, as evidence during the early stages of some sensitive criminal cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing for AB193, which would allow so-called hearsay evidence at preliminary hearings or in secret grand jury proceedings. The provisions would only cover cases of child abuse, child sex abuse or domestic violence, and are meant to release young victims from rehashing a traumatic incident in court.

"Providing alternatives for victims in an already overwhelming and terrifying process will be a benefit to both the victim and the process," Kristy Oriol, of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, said in prepared testimony.

Proponents noted that 36 other states, federal courts and military courts allow hearsay testimony in one way or another, and argued that Nevada needed to follow suit.

But the bill garnered significant opposition from defense lawyers, who say hearsay evidence can be unreliable and the bill would tip the scales too sharply against the defendant in high-stakes cases that could lead to a lifelong prison sentence.

More than 200 attorneys signed a letter calling the bill a "drastic assault on the criminal justice system" and threatening to withhold campaign contributions and endorsements for any lawmakers who voted in favor of it.

"AB193 is a 'line in the sand' statute. You must either support it or oppose it. There is no other position," said the letter, which was dated April 27.

Republican Sen. Greg Brower, chairman of the judiciary committee, said he was appalled by the lawyers' unusual move.

"It's arguably illegal and certainly outrageous and beyond the pale of legislative advocacy," he told reporters after the hearing. "It's insulting to the institution."

Testimony on Wednesday mostly stuck to the substance of the bill, which already passed the Assembly in a 34-8 vote.

Opponents argued that seeing the victim at a preliminary hearing is a "pressure point" when defendants often decide to pursue a plea deal rather than a trial. They said lowering the standard for testimony could prompt cases to drag on longer and create a backlog in the courts.

"The preliminary hearing is the vetting that often results in negotiations that happen in 99.6 percent of cases," said Steve Yeager of the Clark County public defender's office. "If we know these cases are going to negotiate, do we want that to happen earlier in the process, or later in the process?"

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