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7:30am — Judge Says Children Must Testify at Abuse Trial

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Trial of parents accused of tying up and refusing to feed children set for September.

Two children who accused their parents of tying them up and refusing to feed them will have to testify in open court when their parents go to trial in September or October, the Valencia County News-Bulletin reported this weekend.

Despite a plea from prosecutors that testifying in front of their parents would be too traumatizing, state District Judge John Pope last Thursday turned down a motion that the 14- and 10-year-old children testify outside the presence of their parents, Matthew Hepple, 40, and Sarah Burton-Hepple, 33, the News-Bulletin reported.

The parents have been charged with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and six counts of child abuse, and both have pleaded not guilty to the charges, the paper said.


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Assistant District Attorney Judith Reed argued that both children have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what their parents allegedly did to them and that they would feel too intimidated to testify about the alleged abuse with their parents in the same room, the News-Bulletin said.

Before ruling, Pope said that while the prosecution had made a good argument and that the children "more than likely" suffer from PTSD, the defendants are still presumed innocent, the paper reported.

"In my legal opinion, there hasn't been one scintilla of proof at this point that the Hepples are guilty of anything," Pope said. "I want to make sure that they get their day in court with the presumption of innocence. That's where I'm going to start, and that's where the jury will start."

Pope also said "we're not going to traumatize anyone more than we have to," saying he didn't minimize the trauma of the children and that seating arrangements could be made to lessen the impact, the News-Bulletin said.

"The harm seems reasonably inconsequential weighed against the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation," Pope said.

The trial is scheduled to begin in early September, but Reed told the judge she'd like more time and would be ready for trial in October, the paper reported.

The couple was originally indicted on 71 counts of child abuse, but Pope dismissed most of the charges against the couple last year, citing prosecutorial misconduct when a former assistant district attorney vouched for a timeline of alleged abuse during a presentation to the grand jury in July 2007, the News-Bulletin said.

A second grand jury returned a true bill in November 2007, the paper said.

An investigation began in June 2007 after Burton-Hepple's then-13-year-old daughter ran away from home and after finally giving Children Youth and Families Department officials her real name, said she left home after months of alleged abuse, the News-Bulletin said.

The parents were found by CYFD officials and Torrance County sheriff's deputies in a Moriarty home on June 12, 2007 after moving from their home in Highland Meadows, east of Los Lunas, the paper reported.

Court documents say the parents told authorities that it was the 13-year-old daughter who caused injuries to her brother, according to the News-Bulletin.