Crime & Courts

Court delays can take a toll on crime victims

She couldn't eat days before she was supposed to tell strangers in court about the sexual abuse she suffered.

She felt sick.

Over and over again.

The girl, now 14, celebrated birthdays while she waited nearly three years for three criminal cases against Robin J. Adams to conclude.

Adams, a relative, has been in the Sedgwick County jail longer than any other inmate, since April 19, 2007.

The three cases, eventually consolidated into one, were continued dozens of times. One was continued 44 times, including 17 delays for the trial itself, court records show.

The delays weighed on the girl, she and her mother said.

"It was real hard," the girl said.

She often thought, "Well, he's never going to have a trial," her mother said.

The Eagle does not identify victims of sex crimes.

The mother and girl contacted the newspaper after a story about the number of continuances in Sedgwick County District Court. Sheriff's records showed that of the 50 inmates in jail the longest, the cases of those still waiting to go on trial had an average of 23 1/2 continuances. At the time of the report, March 26, eight inmates had been in jail custody since 2007; 38 since 2008.

The girl and her mother said they wanted to talk about the psychological and emotional impacts of Adams' cases being delayed so many times.

Adams, who faced charges including rape, aggravated criminal sodomy, aggravated indecent liberties and aggravated assault, recently was sentenced to 110 months in prison. He made an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charges.

The girl said Adams, among other actions, held a gun to her head, held a knife to her neck, burned her with cigarettes and threatened to drown her in the bathtub to keep her from telling anyone.

She said the abuse against her started when she was 6 and ended when she was 11. Her mother said her daughter told her when she was 6 that Adams had touched her inappropriately. The mother did not contact police. She later pleaded guilty to aggravated endangerment of a child.

The girl was in state custody but recently was returned home to live with her mother, who completed a jail sentence and probation and has expressed remorse for not better protecting her daughter.

A rare case

The Adams cases were unique, Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett said, because the defense lawyer filed a motion for a psychological evaluation of the girl.

It's a rarely filed motion, he said, and a rarely granted one.

"It's very, very rare to be sustained. It was in this case," he said. "That delayed things for six to nine months."

The allegations against Adams, including that he burned her with cigarettes and threatened to drown her, were "God-awful," Bennett said. The girl made a list of what happened to her.

He said there are two different schools of thought about the effect of continuances on victims.

"One is that the sooner you get to it, the easier it will be on the kids because it's fresher in their memory and closure happens faster," he said. "There's truth in that."

He said another viewpoint is that a victim can benefit from the passing of time. He recalled one case in which "that little girl benefited tremendously from the passing of time."

And in another case this year involving an uncle, he said, the girl's mother begged him to not push it to trial because the girl wasn't ready to talk about what had happened to her.

He said he learned the girl was cutting herself — self-injury is common among victims of sexual abuse — and the mother said if she had to testify, the girl would kill herself.

"Knowing that, I did not object to several continuances because the defense needed them and I knew the child was not in the position to force the issue," he said.

But each case is different, he said. Sometimes continuances can have a negative impact on a victim.

Bennett said he has objected to delays based on how they would affect the victim.

"We try very hard to consult with the victims," he said. "The defendant is in charge of the process to an extent. You can't make a guy plead guilty."

He said he often asks male relatives of victims — to help them better understand how hard the cases are to prosecute —"Which would you rather plea to, murder or sex with a child? Every man in the room says, 'Are you kidding me? Murder.' It's hard enough to get a guy to accept responsibility for a crime like a forgery. They fight it like hell to avoid the stigma of being a child molester."

Bennett was the second prosecutor in the Adams cases.

"When I met her, they made it clear they'd love to get this over with," he said.

Delays common

Continuances are common in criminal cases.

Lawyers ask for them for many reasons, often to have more time to prepare for a case. Scheduling conflicts, defense attorney workloads, locating witnesses and negotiating plea agreements also come into play.

Lawyers requested and judges granted 10,841 continuances in 2,358 cases disposed of last year.

Judge Ben Burgess, the criminal assignment judge for district court, said he understands how upsetting delays can be for victims.

"Any time this happens, it's a very traumatic experience," he said of sexual abuse of a child. "It's something that lasts a lifetime."

When considering requests for continuances, Burgess said, judges are "very concerned about the victims and yet have to provide due process for the defendants. These are very serious crimes obviously that this guy was charged with."

In a pamphlet called a "A Legal Resource about Sexual Assault," the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault talks specifically about continuances.

"For victims of family violence and children under 17 years of age who are victims of assault or sexual assault, the court should consider the impact of a continuance on the victim before granting or denying a continuance. If requested, the court shall state on the record the reason for granting or denying the continuance," the pamphlet says.

Shanna Bell-Ahmad, assistant director of the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center, said court delays "interrupt the healing process."

As a case drags on, victims start wondering "Should I have gone through this process?" Bell-Ahmad said.

She said continuances are common, and counselors at the center let victims know that "this could be a lengthy process."

"They understand that," she said. "But all the feelings and emotions going on, it's easy to forget that."

The victim in the Adams cases said she usually would find out the day before court that a hearing was going to be delayed.

Going to court, she said, made her feel scared.

Adams, she said, would give her dirty looks and click a pen repeatedly.

"It was overwhelming to say it over and over again," she said of what happened to her.

The girl said she sometimes hates Adams and sometimes feels bad for him.

She said it bothers her that he never admitted in court what he did to her.

"He gave this big long speech," she said. "He said he still loved me and it was a big misunderstanding."

She did not speak at his sentencing hearing last month.

The girl's mother said she believes Adams used continuances as a way to keep exerting control over her daughter.

"It was like there was a spotlight on him," the girl said. "I don't hate him. I hate what he became and what he did, what kind of monster he became."