A state appellate court has ruled that an 8-year-old’s videotaped statement about several allegations of sexual abuse by a former Plainfield music teacher can be used in his trial, though seven years later she can only recall one incident.
The trial of Donnie Harrell, 58, of Bridgewater, was adjourned earlier this year pending Thursday’s appellate court ruling on whether the girl’s 2016 statement could be admitted as evidence in the trial that involves two alleged victims.
Harrell is charged in a seven-count indictment with second-degree sexual assault, second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, second-degree official misconduct and second-degree pattern of official misconduct.
The judge conducting the trial ruled the videotape could not be used, but the Union County Prosecutor’s Office appealed that ruling and the appellate court agreed with the prosecutor’s office.
On March 30, 2016, Detective Joshua Rios of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office Child Advocacy Center conducted the videotaped interview with the 8-year-old girl, a second grader at Clinton Elementary School.
In that interview, court papers say, the girl described how Harrell touched her and placed her hand on his “private parts” on more than one occasion during school hours in the school’s music room.
However, during trial preparations in the summer of 2022, the girl, now 15, told a trial prosecutor and investigator that she could not recall most of the events she had reported to Rios in 2016.
The girl said she remembered Harrell placing her hand on him, but did not remember him touching her, court papers say.
Harrell was her music teacher in first and second grades and she “really liked” him and thought he was a “really good teacher,” court papers say.
In a hearing before the trial, the girl said that she “didn’t know at the time (the abuse) was a bad thing, but had a feeling it was a bad thing” because she was only in second grade, according to court papers.
The trial judge ruled that the videotaped statements she made about incidents she could not recall now would not be allowed in the trial because Harrell would not be allowed to cross-examine her about those allegations.
The girl’s “failure to recall all the details bears upon her credibility and the weight of the evidence,” the appellate court wrote in its opinion overturning the trial judge’s ruling,
Harrell started working full-time for the Plainfield school district as a music teacher at Clinton Elementary School in April 2014.
A decade before he joined the Plainfield district, Harrell had been acquitted on charges of exposing himself to children at an Asbury Park elementary school.
In December, the New Jersey Department of Education ruled in favor of the Plainfield school district in firing Harrell.
Harrell had appealed his termination from the school district in January 2019, arguing that his tenure rights had been violated. But Administrative Law Judge Susana Guerrero ruled earlier that Harrell had never received tenure in Plainfield and the state Department of Education agreed.
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account.