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Appeals court upholds convictions in separate child sex abuse cases

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WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Thursday rejected claims by two sex offenders that their rights to a public trial were violated when courtrooms were closed so the children they were accused of abusing could testify.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said lower courts were within their rights to close their courtrooms for the children, most of whom were 12 and under when they testified.

Judge Sandra Ikuta, writing for the court, said “an open courtroom would prelude the children from communicating effectively” when they took the stand against Timothy Yazzie and Shonnie Shidale George. The men’s crimes were separate, but their cases were combined by the court for its ruling.

Ikuta said because of the age, maturity and mental stability of the victims, lower courts were right to let the children testify in closed courtrooms. That testimony did not violate the men’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, she wrote.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney for Arizona John Leonardo welcomed the decision as being “in the best interest of justice.”

An attorney for George declined to comment Thursday and Yazzie’s attorney was not immediately available.

George was living with his aunt and several of his younger cousins on the Navajo reservation in 2007 when he was caught in an outhouse with his 6-year-old cousin “bent over the toilet seat with (George) behind him,” court documents said.

Police were called and the child got a medical exam, but the court said it did not appear an investigation was completed.

Three years later, two more cousins said George molested them – girls who were 4 and 5 at the time – in a parked car. A medical examination found evidence of sexual assault and police were called.

This time, in April 2011, George was charged with five counts of sexual abuse and two counts of sexual contact. At trial, the children were allowed to testify in a closed courtroom, over George’s objection.

He was subsequently convicted on four counts of aggravated sexual abuse.

Yazzie was living on the Navajo reservation in 2011 with his girlfriend and her children from other relationships, when the girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter told a school official that Yazzie had molested her.

In an interview videotaped at the Flagstaff Medical Center, the girl said “Yazzie had forced her to engage in sexual intercourse on numerous occasions since she was 13 years old,” the opinion said.

Yazzie was charged with three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor.

At trial, prosecutors argued for the courtroom to be closed for the girl’s testimony because of her “age, maturity, and obvious discomfort when answering questions about the alleged sexual abuse.” That motion was granted, over the objection of Yazzie, who was convicted on all three counts in December 2011.

The appeals court upheld both district court decisions.

Ikuta noted that some of George’s victims were “very, very young” and a 10-year-old victim in his case showed “some cognitive impairments.” Yazzie’s victim, she wrote, “would have even greater difficulty communicating in a large courtroom filled with spectators.”

Leonardo agreed, saying in his statement Thursday that “in certain circumstances it is necessary to provide a child victim with a less intimidating courtroom atmosphere.”

Yazzie also raised two other claims, arguing that the district court “erred by excluding family members of the defendant” and that convicting him of two sex acts in the same incident amounted to double jeopardy. The appeals court rejected both claims.