Duluth sex abuse trial set for former NFL player
A judge said he would make a decision at trial on whether the alleged victim is able to testify.
DULUTH — A fall trial date has been set for a former professional football player from Northwestern Wisconsin who is accused of sexually abusing a young child.
Thomas Allen Burke, 46, of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, will face a jury beginning Oct. 3 at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He could face significant prison time if found guilty of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
A criminal complaint filed in June 2021 alleges that a 7-year-old victim told her mother, and later authorities, that she was molested by Burke on numerous occasions in St. Louis County. The Poplar native has denied the claims and pleaded not guilty.
Judge Eric Hylden scheduled the trial last week after deferring a decision on an issue that the defense hoped would lead to dismissal of the case.
Defense attorney Chris Stocke requested that the court conduct a pretrial competency hearing for the alleged victim, asserting that the process would result in a finding that she is not capable of testifying in a court of law.
He proposed that the judge ask the child a series of questions pertaining to her ability to provide basic personal information, distinguish between truth and lies and recall her discussions with a forensic interviewer.
But St. Louis County prosecutor Jon Holets called the questioning “overly complicated, unnecessary, confusing (and) inaccurate,” claiming the record is “devoid of any evidence to doubt or even question (the) victim’s competency.”
Holets further argued that state law presumes the child to be competent and a "large and long-established nationwide body of research supports the proposition that children are competent to testify even at a very young age.”
Hylden agreed that state statute and case law do not require the court to hold a separate pretrial hearing on the competency of a child over age 10, as is now the case with the alleged victim.
The judge, however, said he reviewed the girl’s forensic interview and other discovery and was prepared to “conduct an examination of the child’s competency at trial, immediately before she testifies.” He urged the attorneys to find compromise on the line of questioning.
“The court would emphasize that it has not determined at this point whether the child is competent to testify or not,” Hylden wrote in the order. “That is certainly a risk for the state, since the child could be declared incompetent, and the state would need to proceed, if it could, without her.”
The complaint states that alleged assaults were first reported to authorities in February 2021, when the girl disclosed to her mother "something that's been a secret." The victim, who was known to Burke, underwent the forensic interview at First Witness Child Advocacy Center the following day.
Authorities said the girl teared up and was initially reluctant to provide information before eventually going on to give details of the alleged assaults. The complaint states that she described as many as five incidents involving inappropriate touching of her genital area.
Burke, when interviewed, denied any sexual acts toward the victim and explained that he thought he was being "railroaded," the complaint states.
Burke, a former defensive end, is a member of the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame and spent four seasons with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. He has remained free after posting a $100,000 bond.
A first-time offender convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct is expected to receive at least 12 years under state sentencing guidelines.