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Perversions that adults can inflict on the young

D. Murali

THIS case is not for the weak-hearted because the topic is sexual violence against a three-year-old girl. The story in Harland Craig Renfrow vs State of Mississippi, decided by the Court of Appeals on September 21, began on June 11, 2000, when the child was brought into a hospital by Renfrow.

Dr James Purdy, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, examined the girl and determined that that the child had "extensive damage to her vagina, pelvic peritoneum, and rectum". A nurse, who was on duty, asked the girl what happened, but Renfrow had interrupted and told her that the child fell on a toy baby doll's bottle. However, the nurse suspected sexual offence, and so informed the Rape Crisis Center. Same day, Tracy Hill-Watts, an investigator arrived from the Sheriff's Department, and when she asked the child to tell who hurt her, the child said, "Renfrow hurt me".

Renfrow, however, had a different story to say: that the child and his minor daughter were staying with him at his trailer on the weekend in question, that "he heard the child screaming" and so he went to her room, and that "the child told him that she had fallen on the toy bottle". He "took her diaper off, sat her on the bed, and examined her"; he "saw the bottle and then took the bottle out of her"; he then "took the child to the bathroom, washed her, wrapped her in a towel, and brought her to the hospital." There was a hole in the diaper, he said, and had trashed it; he also "took the sheets off the bed and stuck them in the washing machine" since "he had only two pair of sheets".

If all that is gruesome, there's more. Dr Purdy told the court that the injuries "were not consistent with the baby bottle or self auto insertion", and so the toy baby doll bottle explanation "was inaccurate and not plausible". At the trial earlier, the prosecution had introduced an important evidence: "a sex toy, described as a dildo or a vibrator" that belonged to Renfrow's former wife. To add further twist to the story, the child's mother testified that on the night before the incident, "she had sexual relations with Renfrow", and that he had "attempted to use a vibrator on her."

At the time of the trial, the child was five years old and took the stand. Though she said that Renfrow had hurt her, when pressed by the defence lawyer, "she did not recall going to the hospital or talking to a doctor or a nurse". Nor did she know "when she was hurt or how old she was when she got hurt". Further, "she did not know where she got hurt".

Renfrow's lawyer objected to her testimony as hearsay, and also questioned her competency to testify. "The trial judge instructed the jury to disregard the child's testimony."

Yet, he conducted a hearing "outside the presence of the jury" and accepted the child's testimony, because a rule of evidence provided that a statement made by "a child of tender years describing any act of sexual contact performed with or on the child by another is admissible in evidence" if it satisfied substantial indicia of reliability and there was corroborative evidence of the act. To assist in conviction, prosecution produced Polaroid pictures that showed the area of the injury, though intensity was not evident "because of poor illumination".

Thus, Renfrow's conviction in the Circuit Court of Lauderdale County of sexual battery of a three-year-old female child and the sentence "to serve life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections," was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Some vindication, that is, for the victim, though during court proceedings there was many an attempt by the defence to pick holes in the prosecution.

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