(Boston, Revised 10/27/10) New England Law | Boston: The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has expanded the rights of disabled victims and witnesses in a significant decision on August 11, 2010, which will help ensure equal access to justice in the courts. The case was brought before the SJC by Wendy Murphy ’87, a member of the law school’s adjunct faculty and a nationally recognized expert on victims’ rights, child abuse, and interpersonal violence.
The case involved a nursing home resident who alleged sexual assault. The woman had previously suffered a stroke that resulted in expressive aphasia, a disability that affects speech and writing, and a district court judge had ruled that she was not competent to testify because of her inability to narrate her testimony without the help of an aide.
The SJC’s ruling creates a process for holding a hearing to determine appropriate "reasonable" accommodations for disabled witnesses. The court also clarified who may challenge an incompetency decision.
“Although courts have accommodated victims in the past, for example, providing sign language interpreters for deaf victims,” said Murphy, “this is the first time an appellate court has ruled that a trial judge is legally obligated to provide an accommodation for a disabled crime victim.
“In the past, the Americans with Disabilities Act and state disability laws have been understood to require things like wheelchair ramps and other accommodations that enable disabled persons to gain physical access to the courtroom. This ruling makes clear that the law also covers testimonial and participatory access.”
Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who now specializes in the representation of crime victims, women, and children. She also writes and lectures widely on victims’ rights and criminal justice policy. Her expose of the American legal system, And Justice For Some, came out in 2007. She has been a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and at New England Law | Boston, and she helped establish New England Law | Boston’s Judicial Language Project, the first of its kind in the country.
Murphy received assistance in the case from Jenna Labourr ’11. The two collaborated as part of the Women and Children’s Advocacy Project, through which faculty and students work to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Women and Children’s Advocacy Project is a component of New England Law’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility.