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Acquittal in rural Alaska sex abuse trial highlights difficulties of such cases

Jill Burke

BETHEL -- Last week a Bethel jury acquitted a man accused of tormenting and sexually abusing his daughter and stepdaughters for years. He controlled his house with strict rules and harsh words. The claim by the girls that he'd touched them on their privates -- that he'd raped them -- branded him a child molester, leading to his arrest and criminal trial on dozens of counts of sexual abuse of a minor.

Alaska Dispatch has chosen not to publish the defendant's name, nor his home community, so that the circumstances of the alleged crimes can be more openly discussed without identifying the victims or further tainting the reputation of a man whom a jury chose not to convict.

The acquittal Thursday came as a victory for the defendant, whose wife -- the girls' mother -- desperately wanted him out of jail and back at home in their small Yup'ik Eskimo village northeast of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. His daughter also told jurors she missed her dad.

Whether the truth came out at trial is something only the girls and their father/stepfather can know. Years of unhappiness, bad memories and family tension have ended with the man they'd hope to escape headed back to the small family home, where they must again adjust to life under the same roof.

Uncomfortable testimony

The victims didn't want to come to court. They didn't want to testify against their father/stepfather. They didn't want to make their mom angry. They wanted to forget the past.

“I know I may have reported some things in the past, but from this day on that is something to forget,” one of the stepdaughters, now in her twenties, uncomfortably testified from the witness stand. “The past is the past and it doesn't make a difference, I am still living to this day and trying to move forward with my life. I don't want anything to do with this.”

The girls weren't alone in disliking the trial process. Even some jurors weren't interested in being there, asking to be excused for child care, along with medical and other needs. With a jury down to just twelve members from the usual 16, there was no more room to let any of them go. Four had already been dismissed, two to deal with a family tragedy, one because he knew the defendant, and a fourth because of her health.

Were the girls telling the truth when over the years they'd told their mom, school counselors, and state troopers that they'd been touched at night? That they had developed a habit of barricading their bedroom door to try to stop the abuse? Bethel prosecutor June Stein argued yes -- all the evidence lined up in favor of finally holding a man who'd hurt the girls for so long accountable for his crimes.

“Finally, the defendant molested (his biological daughter) and she came forward. And that's when it got peoples' attention. And that's when (the stepdaughters) were able to tell their story to people who listened to them and could do something to help them. It is very sad that it happened to them for so long,” Stein told jurors at the start of trial.

The man's defense attorney, Marcelle McDannel, argued the evidence didn't justify convictions. Timelines were off. There was no DNA evidence. No medical exams. No witnesses. The stepdaughters were troubled, unhappy with being expected to go to school, follow curfews, and generally tired of living in a strict home under the rule of someone who wasn't their real dad. Angry at being called worthless bitches, angry over the better treatment they thought their younger half-sister received, McDannel suggested the girls just wanted their stepdad gone. She told jurors that to get rid of him, the girls came up with the worst possible thing to say about him, something they knew would yield the desired results: They labeled him a child molester.

“When they are little kids, they are not saying that (their stepfather) touched them. It is only when they are older and they want to go out and do whatever they want that all of a sudden he is molesting them,” McDannel told the jury. “You are going to hear the testimony of two very angry young women who felt that they were treated unjustly and came to really resent their stepfather.”

Short deliberations

When asked to choose between versions of events presented by the prosecutor, and those presented by the defense, after a three-and-a-half day trial, jurors came back with a swift verdict just hours after closing arguments: not guilty on all counts. Not guilty on 34 counts of sexual abuse that the prosecutor told jurors could have been hundreds of counts, but was consolidated for simplicity.

The abuse supposedly took place over years, a couple of times a week, and comprised mostly touching of “privates” -- the girls's genitals -- over and under the clothes, but occasionally occurred with penetration.

Instead of asking a jury to find the man guilty of touching the girls weekly over a course of years, the case was charged so that a jury was asked to find that he'd touched them, penetrated them, once in each calendar year. One count for each year they'd had to live through it. Was there enough evidence to find that he'd sexually touched his stepdaughters when they were as young as six and continuing until they were 13? Stein thought so.

And it wasn't even the stepdaughters' claims that got the man hauled into court after all of those years. It was a report made in 2011 by his teenage daughter about a rape that brought the girls' stories into alignment and resulted in his arrest.

The then-15-year old had come forward saying her brother had raped her. During the interview, she'd also disclosed her father had done the same thing to her a year earlier. One night, she'd had a dream that her dad raped her. When she woke up, she was sweaty. Her privates hurt. And there was “white and yellow stuff” on her body.

Her dad ended up with 34 counts against him, sixteen for each stepdaughter, and two for her, his biological daughter.

A report of abuse gains traction

As children, the two stepdaughters, now grown, had accused their stepdad of the abuse more than once. But the reports never went very far. Troopers, the Office of Children's Services, and the girls' mother all chose not to act. But when the man's biological daughter, still a teenager, made the same accusation more recently, the case got traction.

One of the stepdaughters made the report after a school counselor confronted her, concerned about her inability to stay awake during school. She was sleepy during the day, the girl said, because her mom's boyfriend was touching her at night.

At trial the stepdaughters were characterized by the defense as angry girls so unhappy with their step-father that they had made up molestation stories to get him out of the house. They didn't like curfews -- 10 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on weekends -- or the house rules which included no smoking, drinking or drug use, no boys in the house, and daily attendance at school.

And the claim by the defendant's biological daughter that she'd been raped, too? It was merely the confused dreams of a girl whose brother had been the actual abuser, the defense argued.

“Girls just don't say that. They don't make that up,” Stein would later tell jurors during closing arguments.

Yet on the stand, the victims who testified about memories of abuse at grand jury were struck with memory loss during the trial. They were uncooperative and harsher-toned with the prosecutor than with the defense attorney. They denied telling investigators they'd been abused as young girls, and one that did admit to abuse said it happened when she was older -- outside the time period charged in the indictment.

Reasons to doubt

The forgetfulness of the witnesses, whether willful or a function of time or denial, was understandable and came with good reason, according to both sides, who offered different explanations for it. For the prosecution, it was cast as the result of it being difficult to testify in open court about sexual things with your accused abuser staring you down, and of wanting harmony in the home and not wanting to displease your mom. The defense suggested it was the result of the stepdaughters not wanting to acknowledge they had lied about the molestation.

At the trial's end, Stein did what she could to persuade jurors they had enough to convict. When the girls started talking to one another about the abuse, they believed each other because it had happened to them, too. They were conditioned to keep silent about it because when they did speak up, the defendant would get physically violent with the children and their mother. What's a child to do when they speak up about being hurt and nothing happens year after year? The girls were put down, felt like nobodies and at times felt like giving up on life. With the case finally at trial, their mother was pressuring them to not go forward. They may now want it to all be forgotten, but “you can't let it go away,” Stein urged. “He stole their childhood. There is no life for a child who is afraid in their own home.”

But the defense had given jurors many reasons to second-guess the prosecution's case. The children were in OCS care during the early years for which the sexual abuse was charged. The defendant had been in Seward for vocational training for part of the time. The girls all slept together in the same room, yet none of them witnessed the others being abused. The house was so safe that other children from the village, which has little law enforcement and a lot of alcohol abuse, would come stay over when their own parents had had too much to drink. The mother denied anything had happened, and swore she would have done something if she thought abuse was occurring. The defendant, who took the stand on his own behalf, was adamant he had never sexually hurt the girls, nor would he, because he loved them so much.

“This case has been a long time coming. The victims are not asking for justice. They want it to go away. But they deserve justice,” Stein told the jury, while McDannel cautioned them that ''To convict (the defendant) you have to be sure.”

Now, the 57-year old man who could have gone to jail for decades is free, cleared of the charges, and the family is faced with the task of readjusting to life together in the same small house where the abuse was alleged to have taken place.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com