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Trial ends (second of two parts)

Posted by joeabbott on May 10, 2015

What a lengthy setup! As I think about the trial, this is more of the third of three parts … the first was just the trial assignment, the second was last week’s post: the charges and parties involved. Today I’ll address the trial itself.

I’m torn a bit: cut to the chase, or detail all the horror-inducing nuances. And, for those who think that’s a bit melodramatic, it isn’t: I wasn’t sleeping well, had nightmares, and the trial and details were constantly on my mind. I’m sure I was poorer company for the distraction and because I couldn’t talk about it, all Suzy could do is tolerate my vague “it was an ugly one today”, or some other vague comment on the trial proceedings. Let’s start typing and see where this goes.

The witnesses

The prosecution was the only one to call witnesses. The defense earlier had stated they wouldn’t be asking their client to take the stand; the defending lawyer asked if this was OK and, in my eyes, it was. The man in question, regardless of the charges was innocent until the burden of proof that he was guilty was provided … and so what could someone say to further prove their own innocence?

Additionally, the defense recognized that being on the stand was hard. You get asked pointed questions, minutiae from your life is analyzed, and this is done before strangers (the jury) and anyone who wishes to attend the trial. While this is a bit out of order, I will note that I reflected back on this comment late in the trial as he asked the young lady bringing the charges some bruising questions and then played up inconsistencies in testimony given two years prior. It seemed a bit disingenuous to ask for allowances for his client and then leverage those same allowances to make his case against the plaintiff.

Now, where was I … oh yes, I would have liked to have heard from the defendant just to hear from him. The portrait created of him stood without the benefit of positive counterpoints. And, after the trial was over, we met the judge who cautioned us (without further information) that you had to be very careful with “character witnesses” … something we’d asked about and would have liked to have seen. As the defendant had gone through a seminary program, had been a youth soccer coach, and who had a business in his community, you’d think there’d be someone would would stand up for this guy.

But, the only witnesses who were called were by the prosecution: a couple of investigators of the case, the mother, the young lady bringing the charges, her new father, and her brother. While few in number, they took about nine days to get through.

The (step-)father

The mother remarried after her divorce and the step-father adopted her children … making him the young lady’s (new) father. While technically inaccurate, to keep things straight, I’ll refer to him as the step-father.

The step-father’s deposition was shown as a video as he had since passed away. A sad aside is that, only months after marrying the mother, he was diagnosed with cancer and, after a few more months, died.

But, for the young lady, he made the best of the time he had. While he stated that he thought something was off, he waited until he had built a genuine relationship with the young woman before approaching her to ask if something was the matter; if something in her past between her and her father was troubling her. At this point, she shared her story with him … with anyone … for the first time.

The step-father then said she should tell her mother and, after she’d done that, the family went to counseling sessions. I’m not sure when the police were brought in.

But that’s about all he had to say. Two issues (he said) had tipped him off to a problem: before he was on the scene, the mother and her kids moved out of her parents home (the young lady’s grandparents) and into a small house. On moving, they brought furniture from the original family home but the young lady refused to take back her childhood bed; she wanted nothing to do with it but never said why.

The second issue was a series of physical problems brought on by emotional stress. One time in high school she broke down because she overheard another (boy) student make a disparaging comment about a different girl’s butt. The sort of mindless high school comment made countless times in any given day but it drove her to have a breakdown.

So, with those two things and very likely many other tiny details, the step-father waited and asked and the asking set in motion several years of events that led to the trial.

The investigators

The city in which the alleged crimes took place put two officers on the case. The first was the “desk sergeant” (male) and the second a female brought in to conduct the interview with the young lady. Aside from the captured testimony, two things came from this: the potentially obvious (but it wasn’t to me) fact that the officers are not there to establish guilt, to find evidence supporting one side, or to determine if a crime was committed … they are simply gathering evidence. And, second, a point the defense brought about several times, was that the investigators took no evidence from the home.

While the defense played that fact up a bit, in retrospect it really wouldn’t have amounted to anything. By the time the charges were brought, it was two years past the last incident and another family was already living in the home. A point in the defense’s case was that these crimes could not have occurred as stated due to the closeness of other rooms in the house … I live in a fairly standard house and the sketches provided by the family were enough to appreciate it was a fairly standard home; I didn’t need measurements and police photographs.

I would have liked to have seen the reports submitted as evidence, however, they were not, so the jury never got to review them. So, except for a few tidbits, there was nothing particularly motivating that the investigators added to the trial.

The mother

My heart broke for this woman. If her husband did the unthinkable, she had failed to protect her child; if her child was lashing out in an inconceivable way, a man she’d once loved would suffer unjustly. She was in a no-win situation.

The trial brought about a pattern that seems normal in the view of a busy life of making ends meet and raising kids: end of day activities allowed her to enjoy some quiet while her husband took care of putting the kids to bed, her daughter had managed from a young age to do her own laundry, and whether or not a closet door was open or closed didn’t much matter.

Under the scrutiny of a trial, it looks different.

The mother was a teacher and trained to be a mandatory reporter … someone trained to spot abuse in vulnerable people and required to report it to the proper authorities. As such, how could she miss 8 year’s of abuse? If her husband really was abusing her child, how could she not notice him in her room as often as that required? How could she not notice the cleanup required to hide the abuse? All question that came to bear and rest on her shoulders before the jury.

She was visibly crushed.

While the defense had made her out to be vindictive and spiteful against her ex-spouse, it was her testimony that brought about the only two positive comments made about the father: he played the piano beautifully and he was a really good cook. She made those comments with a wistful look of a person remembering happier days. It made for sad testimony.

Her comments came early enough in the trial that the pieces putting together reasonable doubt against the defense hadn’t started to settle yet. But, we did get the basic timeline defining the family: the business they started in the mid-2000s, the foundering of that business and the drinking by the father that ensued, the death of a godson playing in the cul de sac outside their home and the effect on the father, and the fights that eventually led to the separation and divorce.

The brother

Let’s jump ahead; this is starting to get long.

The brother’s testimony was interesting. He was now a young man in college and had flown in from Florida. I was immediately impressed by him: he seemed composed, wore his vest-and-tie ensemble well, and spoke well. After swearing in, he was asked if his father was in the room … he responded, “no”. Oh, I see … “is your biological father in the room” he was then asked … after looking about (almost theatrically), “no” came the response. That was odd. The boy clearly took in the whole room and intentionally decided to “not see” his birth father at the defendant’s table.

At this point the young man’s hands started to shake, his voice took a quaver, and his composure started breaking … telling me he was aware of the game he was playing. He gathered quickly but it was a telling moment.

Later in deliberation, other jurors said they viewed that as a stab at the father … to me, he was lying after swearing an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So, for me, I made a mental note to be very cautious about trusting his testimony as a means of maintaining innocence or establishing guilt.

What his testimony did do is color the story. The daughter was a “favorite child” and the young man felt he could do no good. He was aware his father spent a lot of time with the daughter in her room but that just made for less time for him to be scolded or sent to do more chores. Another point was made about the linen closet between the boy’s bedroom and his sister’s … the mother testified that she heard it squeak open on a regular basis; the times when the father was getting a towel to clean up the mess that would be made after assaulting the daughter. But other testimony said the closet door always stood open … how could it squeak then? Well, the boy stated that regularly it was open but, in that position it would partially block his door; so every time it was open and he went to bed, he’d close it. And later the father would open it to get a towel.

Little things started to gel and build a complete picture. A complete and terrible picture.

Other than that, I did “like” that the boy, for all his anger at his father, never said anything specifically damning of his father. He never conjectured on his father’s guilt, he never made accusations, and there were times he said things that may have been seen as contradictory of the young lady. For instance, he said his mother was the only one who did laundry … a fact countered by the young lady who said she did her own. While a discrepancy, I honestly can’t tell you whether my sisters ever did their own laundry … to my recollection, my mother did it all. Which, in a family of six kids, would make her pretty much a laundress. So, for me, this contradiction didn’t weigh heavily.

One thing he mentioned that seemed to even take the defense lawyer by surprise: that it wasn’t uncommon for the father to walk around the house in just his underwear. That may be common in some houses, but seems to be a bit of a shocker to someone like me. That just seems, well, inappropriate; especially with children about. But, for this family, it was one of the things that defined “normal”.

The young lady

During the pre-trial, the prosecutor asked if we could trust the testimony of a child; the defense asked us to imagine a catty teenaged girl lashing angrily out at her father. What we got was a young lady who was calm, composed, and absolutely frightened to death. Her testimony was clear, emotion often held in check but surfacing as sniffles and gasps, she looked once at the jury early on but thereafter stared directly at the person asking questions. She never ranted, never broke up.

Her story was long, mostly because the prosecutor jumped about and continued asking, “how did that feel” whenever she could. When asked why she didn’t say something, she would respond that her father told her not to. When asked how she could tolerate such a thing, she stated that for her, this was what “normal” was.

The defense asked her about the discrepancies in her testimony. Early on she stated the attacks came 2-3 times a week; in later testimony, it was 4-5 times a week. The defense lawyer did the math of five times a week over 8 years and asked how she could keep a secret of something that happened over 2000 times. The young lady choked back a sob, looked at her hands, and repeated a phrase she’d used many times already: “because my father told me to.”  He came back stating that it was impossible to believe that she didn’t confide in childhood friend: “I didn’t have any friends.” Or that it didn’t come up in school … “kids are always curious about sex at that age,” proclaimed the lawyer; “I was never curious about sex,” she replied with bitter regrets hanging in the air.

She was absolutely believable and the inconsistencies did little to erode the case. If you came into my bedroom on a regular but random basis in my youth and smacked me, some eight years later I’d have a hard time recalling the specific number of times the smacks occurred. While the father wasn’t smacking his daughter, the abuse she suffered was far worse.

Resting the case

After the testimonies, the prosecutor did a much improved job over how she proceeded in the trial. She called out the key facts, she was brief, and she detailed the charges. She did that part well.

The defense attorney had much less to go on at this point. He had nothing to point to supporting his earlier charge that the mother had turned the children against the father; he had nothing in the way of the young lady’s testimony to point to indicating a hurt daughter lashing out at the father. And, his construction of the father as a loving man broke down in face of things like the son’s testimony and the fact that, after the divorce, the father moved out of the state without even telling the kids when or where. Instead, he really only had the question of how such a crime could continue for as long as it did without detection. A fair question.

But with that, we were sent to deliberate.

The jury decides

In the jurors’ room, we selected the gregarious man as our foreman. I thought I wanted to do that role (something new), but the instructions surrounding which form to sign in which condition was a bit confusing so I happily let someone else “do the paperwork”.

Here’s where Juror #2 (the young woman who made the comment, “of course he’s guilty … he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t”) took the high road. Our foreman said, “let’s just see where everyone’s thoughts are … we’ll take a quick vote and then talk”. To my mind, I thought he meant, “regardless of the outcome of this vote, we will discuss this”. So I voted the way I was leaning: guilty. However, I absolutely needed to talk about things to give this man a fair trial.

As the votes came out, however, there was only one “not guilty” and it was by Juror #2 … who felt the defendant was guilty but, like me, needed to talk through some things. I really wish I’d done that. Really wish I had. If I wasn’t ready to convict someone, I should have said “not guilty”. I’ve learned from this and will keep it in mind.

With that “not guilty” vote, we went through all the fact, all the questions that came up, and … as I’m nerdy like this … I built a timeline on the whiteboard detailing the salient points from the trial. At one point the foreman (Juror #14) asked, “what will this tell us?” While a fair question, I still wanted to shoot him the stink-eye. Having all the events sorted out was important!

As the facts came to us in terms of differences in ages and times, in high school years (9th grade, senior, etc.), in terms of calendar dates and relative to other events … well, I needed to have a timeline that helped establish a consistency of the story and make sure it made sense. And, once built, several others thanked me and said it really helped to see the whole picture.

By the end of the day we were all comfortable with a “guilty” vote but one of the jurors asked if we could sleep on it; we were convicting a man of a very serious crime and the benefit of time might help to ensure all of us it was the right call. And so we adjourned for the night, came back the next day, and all were still decided on “guilty”.


When the verdict was read the young lady was in the “audience” section of the courtroom and bowed her head and sobbed; the father looked down and muttered under his breath; the defense lawyer laid a steadying hand on his client’s elbow. Sentencing will be five days from now. At one point I wanted to attend, wanted to hear the sentence read and to see out this story to the end. Over the weeks, as sleep gets easier and my thoughts aren’t to a heartbroken mother and her daughter who has been handed a severe handicap with which to start life, I care less about this painful saga. Well, maybe I care but want it to be less a part of my life. I may attend but I will likely “let it go” and get on with my future.

And I’ll invite you in on those future stories. Stories of chickens and cats and hikes and woodworking projects and the little, good things I invite into my waking hours.

I’ll end this with one of the last things I remember the judge saying on this trial: court adjourned.

A very last chapter

[Posted 5/16 … 1 week later]

I didn’t attend the trial, work demands kept me at my desk, but I did shoot Judge Tanya Thorp’s bailiff a question at 3:45PM: what was the sentence? Within 5 minutes I received the response: 25 years in prison.

I will likely never know if there are retrials, appeals, or time off early with good behavior; but I do know that I’ll have done my part in supporting the justice system.


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