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In addition to the general presumption of competency found in Fed. R. Crim. P. 601, there is a specific statutory presumption children are competent to testify. 18 U.S.C.S. § 3509(c)(2). The statutory scheme places a heavy burden on a party seeking to have a child declared incompetent to testify. A court may only conduct a competency examination of a child witness upon submission of a written motion by a party offering compelling proof of incompetency. 18 U.S.C.S. § 3509(c)(3), (4). Even if this hurdle is met and a competency examination is held, the purpose of the examination is only to determine if the child is capable of understanding and answering simple questions. 18 U.S.C.S. § 3509(c)(8).
Defendant was determined to be a juvenile delinquent pursuant to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, 18 U.S.C.S. § 5031, et seq., after finding he had committed aggravated sexual abuse in violation of 18 U.S.C.S §§ 2241(a), and 2246(2)(A). His victim was defendant's thirteen-year-old cousin who gave testimony against him at trial. Defendant maintained that she was not competent to offer testimony against him pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 601 and 18 U.S.C.S. § 3509. There was some evidence offered by defendant that the victim suffered from mild mental retardation and learning disabilities.
Did the district court err in permitting defendant's thirteen-year-old victim from testifying against him?
The court affirmed the decision of the district court. The court held that the district court had broad discretion in determining the competency of a witness, and found that district court decisions in this regard would not be reversed in the absence of an abuse of discretion. The court found that 18 U.S.C.S. § 3509 contained a statutory presumption that children are competent to testify and placed a heavy burden on a party seeking to have a child declared incompetent to testify.