January 7, 2010 in City

Abuse trial witness list grows

Judge says four can testify in Morning Star case
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Attorneys for a man alleging he was abused at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch scored a partial victory Wednesday when a judge ruled four other alleged victims can testify in the first abuse case to go to trial against the ranch.

The judge hearing the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch child abuse lawsuits issued a split decision on a key pretrial motion in the case, the first of the 19 scheduled for trial in Spokane County Superior Court.

Attorneys for Kenneth Putnam and 14 other former ranch residents had sought to have as many of the plaintiffs as possible testify in Putnam’s case to show that Morning Star knew or should have known of the alleged abuse at the ranch and failed to do anything about it. Putnam claims he was abused in the 1980s by ranch employees, including former director the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner.

Morning Star’s attorneys, on the other hand, tried to suppress the testimony of any of the other plaintiffs, saying that it would be unfairly prejudicial. They also said that Putnam’s attorneys had not presented sufficient evidence for the court to find “by a preponderance of the evidence” that the other plaintiffs had actually been abused.

In a written decision, Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled that the testimony of four of the other plaintiffs would be allowed because they had each reported their alleged abuse at the time it happened, a period that spanned from the early 1960s to the late 1970s.

The witnesses who will be allowed to testify are Paul Baggett, who says he was abused while a ranch resident in 1973 and reported it to Weitensteiner; William Call, who says he was abused by Weitensteiner in 1961 and ’62, reported it to then-director the Rev. Marvin Lavoy, and was subsequently abused by Lavoy; Stephanie Miller, born Carl Smith, who says she was abused in the 1970s and reported it to Weitensteiner; and William Knapton, who says he was abused in the 1960s and reported it to Weitensteiner.

The issue, O’Connor wrote, was whether the ranch was made aware of allegations before Putnam’s alleged abuse, which would have made “additional acts of sexual abuse a reasonably foreseeable risk.”

In addition, attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued, the testimony of the four could serve to rebut any contention that plaintiffs recently fabricated their allegations.

None of the other plaintiffs reported their abuse at the time of the alleged incidents, and O’Connor said she could not find by a preponderance of the evidence that the acts of abuse they allege had occurred.

Morning Star’s lead attorney, Jim King, declined on Wednesday to comment on O’Connor’s ruling.

One of Putnam’s attorneys said that while he respectfully disagreed with not letting all the witnesses testify, he expected to prevail in court with the ones permitted.

“We are happy the court has allowed some of the victims who were sexually abused while at Morning Star to testify at the trial,” said attorney Dan Fasy.

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