New bill protects disabled adult victims who must testify in court

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
allisonm@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 4/8/22

"He got her as soon as she walked out of the door."It sounds like the opening line of a horror novel. But it is how Stephen Hickman describes the very real nightmare his daughter endured.Hickman is …

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New bill protects disabled adult victims who must testify in court

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"He got her as soon as she walked out of the door."

It sounds like the opening line of a horror novel. But it is how Stephen Hickman describes the very real nightmare his daughter endured.

Hickman is methodical and blunt as he discusses the man who raped his disabled daughter, Courtney, five years ago during Mardi Gras in downtown Mobile.

Courtney Hickman, 30, has an intellectual disability that limits her vocabulary and daily functioning to that of a 2- to 3-year-old.

The group home where she lived took her to a downtown Mobile hotel for Mardi Gras without her parents' permission. When her caregiver left to join the festivities, Courtney was left with that woman's sister. When the sister fell asleep, Courtney wandered out of the hotel.

That is where evil was waiting, her father says.

Security cameras show a man sitting on the hotel steps. When he saw Courtney exit the hotel, he got up and led her away to a back alley. He raped her and left her naked and lying on the ground. A cleaning lady in a nearby building saw her from a window several floors up and called the police.

When officers reached her, Courtney was catatonic and non-verbal. When the rapist was finally caught, after committing another such crime, police had DNA proof linking him to Courtney's attack. They had video camera footage. They had what was considered a solid case.

But prosecutors were forced to make a plea bargain and give the attacker a lesser charge. If they didn't, Courtney would have been forced to take the stand and confront her rapist.

There was no guarantee she could communicate what had happened to her. Doctors also feared that the appearance would send Courtney into a tailspin and destroy the healing and progress she had made in the years since that day.

"We really felt like we were having to make a deal with the devil to protect Courtney," Hickman said. "It would retraumatize her. I felt like we were being held hostage to accept a deal."

This month, the Alabama Legislature passed a measure that will protect victims like Courtney.

Rep. Matt Simpson spearheaded House Bill 68, which creates protections for developmentally and intellectually disabled victims who must testify in court.

Current law says children under 12 do not have to appear in court to give testimony. Instead, the court allows statements made during a forensic interview to be played for the jury. Things children say to adults about the incident, including to teachers, officers and parents, can also be used as evidence.

With the passing of HB 68, those same rights are given to disabled individuals who have the mental capacity of a child.

"Now their prior statements are treated like every other witness," Simpson said. "They may not understand what is going on in a courtroom, and they may be scared. Just because they are physically older doesn't mean they are mentally able to handle it any easier than a child."

Prosecutors will have to provide medical evidence of a victim's mental capacity to be protected under the measure.

Simpson, who worked in the district attorney's office, said there is a growing number of victims who fall into this category.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Keith Blackwood and Assistant District Attorney Tandice Blackwood, both of the Mobile County District Attorney's Office, worked with Simpson to draft the legislation.

The pair has worked with handicapped and child victims and often discussed why there was no statue to help protect intellectually disabled adults in the same way. Both say they have watched these types of cases pass through the system for years with often little they could do to help.

In one instance, Keith Blackwood said, he worked with a mentally disabled adult rape victim who could write a single word, her name.

She drew pictures like a small child and smiley faces. She made drawings with Blackwood when he sat down to talk with her.
But she couldn't explain how a man came into her house and raped her. She couldn't articulate the fear, the pain, the horror of that moment.

And because she couldn't take the stand and explain to the jury what happened, the court was unable to get a guilty verdict on some of the charges, despite the other evidence. That will change with the passage of HB 68.

"He (Simpson) was able to craft what I think is really strong bill that gives protection to these people in need of protection," Keith Blackwood said. "I think it's a wonderful thing. It helps us speak for victims when they can't speak for themselves."

Blackwood said he believes the number of sexual assaults against disabled people is underreported because they can't explain what happened and may not even understand what has happened.

"Really small children that don't know what happened or how to articulate it, so often it is underreported. The same is true with intellectually disabled individuals. Sometimes they may not even know how to tell or understand what just happened to them, and it wouldn't get reported.

"This bill will help because if they tell anybody – a caregiver or parent or medical provider – if they're able to articulate anything about the sexual assault or a violent crime, these people can report it and get law enforcement involved. They can use all those statements that the individual made, and it just makes our cases that much stronger," Keith Blackwood said.

The bill began its journey through the legislature before COVID-19 spread but was pushed aside during the pandemic. Keith Blackwood said the attack on Courtney brought attention to the urgent need for its passage.

"Unfortunately, it didn't pass before that trial came up, and we had to make a plea bargain," Keith Blackwood said. "There was nothing to protect her from having to confront this guy on the stand."

The man who attacked Courtney was convicted of a lesser degree of rape and sodomy than the first-degree charge for which the prosecutors fought. He received a 25-year sentence rather than life behind bars.

Courtney remained non-verbal for nearly three years after the attack.

The group home where she was living was shut down within a week of the attack, and civil litigation in the years after has netted her family enough to provide Courtney with her own home and 24-hour care, hand-picked by her parents.

Still, her primary caregiver who walked away that night has escaped any penalty.

Surveillance footage from the hotel shows Courtney wandered around the lobby for 38 minutes. At the same time, her caretaker was posting on Facebook about being out and enjoying Mardi Gras.

At 5:32 a.m., the woman posted again. It was one minute before Courtney walked outside.

Now that HB 68 has passed, her father wants to see language built into the system that holds caregivers responsible if they desert their charge and that person is hurt. Current statues would only hold Courtney's caregiver responsible if she had died.

"Alabama is so backwards when it comes to dealing with disabled individuals. Common sense is lost in the bureaucracy or not even existent to protect and take care of people who need us most," Hickman said. "Every time there is a change, it is cut to make a deal because the voting public will push back.

"I just really wish society as a whole would step up and do what's right for people who can't take care of themselves."

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