Beth Docherty was in the ninth grade when her music teacher began sexually assaulting her.Three years before, the grooming had begun at the Pittsburgh area school. Her teacher, a family friend, eventually raped her.
“He was my idol,” Docherty said.
More than a year later, she went to a Girl Scout leader, who called a crisis hotline and helped her tell her parents.
Then came her second assault.
Five other people came forward after she pressed charges, and Docherty found herself the first to testify at the teacher’s trial.
For several hours on the stand she endured lawyers battering her integrity and character.“It was horrific,” she said. She was prepared for the defense to ask intimate questions. She just couldn’t imagine being picked apart.
“I wasn’t prepared for them trying to trick you,” she said. “They would try to twist your words around.”
Advocates and lawyers say Docherty’s experience is common in sexual assault and abuse cases. They frequently see a double victimization: accusers put on trial themselves, their past and credibility attacked, to cast doubt on their testimony and sway juries.
In many cases, children may face the additional trauma of having to recall painful moments with defendants sitting nearby, causing stories to unravel.
The plight of alleged victims in the courtroom will take center stage next month, when the child sex abuse trial is scheduled to begin for ex-Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. He is accused of molesting and assaulting 10 boys over a 12-year span.
His attorney, Joe Amendola, has requested school records, psychological evaluations and other personal information about the accusers, suggesting a defense strategy of discrediting them. A gag order on the case prevents Amendola from commenting.
“It’s very hurtful to someone who has been the victim of sexual abuse as a child to be embarrassed and humiliated,” said Richard Serbin, a Blair County civil attorney who has represented more than 100 victims of sexual abuse, including a 1994 case involving a Catholic priest. He spoke about the issue generally, and not in reference to the Sandusky case.
“Many victims spend years trying to overcome the hurt that has been caused to them,” Serbin said. “And then when they seek justice, oftentimes they’re surprised some of the techniques they’re subjected to are allowed.”
Badgering may make legal sense, according to one lawyer, but advocates say it skews trials in favor of defendants, especially after investigations with multiple interviews. Those can cause varying accounts — a prime opening for defense attorneys to exploit.
Clouding matters, Pennsylvania prosecutors can’t have experts testify about how abuse victims respond.
“In many ways, the scales of justice are not as balanced as they could be because we’re not educating the jury pool about the dynamics of sexual abuse,” said Cathleen Palm, a child abuse survivor with Protect our Children Committee, a Pennsylvania advocacy group.
In the hot seat
Docherty still remembers the attorney’s questions.
As she sat on the witness stand, they snapped at her like punches: “How could you have gotten good grades in school if this man was brutally raping you?”
“I knew what happened. I lived through it,” Docherty said. “If he tried to twist my words around, I would correct him.”
Docherty, now the president of the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape board, said rape crisis center advocates helped her get through the legal process. For young victims, she said, having an advocate who knows the system and can be in the courtroom is important, considering the defendant may be surrounded by familiar faces.
A courtroom can be an intimidating environment, said Kristin Houser, vice president of communications at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. For children testifying, it can be a nightmare. Palm said if they face someone important to them — as is often the case — they may struggle with conflicting emotions.
“Even when kids are very victimized, and they’ve been harmed especially by someone who’s been loved, they don’t want to see that person hurt,” Palm said. “That’s a huge weight on that child.”Some cope in ways that contradict assumptions about how trauma survivors should act. And juries can misunderstand.
“You might have someone testify on the stand who smiles,” Docherty said. “That doesn’t mean they’re happy. It doesn’t mean they lied.”
Houser once watched a girl in her early teens, who had been sexually assaulted, testify against her alleged attacker. On the stand, she was cool and quiet, answering questions directly.“The jury did not see signs of distress,” Houser said.
But when the man was acquitted, the girl crumpled, betraying her inner turmoil..Anne Ard, director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, said research has found that trauma victims may be detached as a way of managing their overwhelming emotions. They may not weep on the stand as expected.
“I think the reality is any time a victim of assault, particularly sexual assault, has to get up on a witness stand in a packed courtroom is sure to be terrifying,” Ard said.
“I just have all the admiration and respect in the world for people who do that, because I think it’s scary. People who do it are exhibiting a tremendous amount of courage and talking about things that are intimately personal and incredibly traumatic.”
Credibility often at issue
Ed Blanarik, a State College defense attorney, said abuse victims in court confront an inescapable legal reality.
“Any time a person takes an oath to tell the truth, their credibility becomes an issue,” he said.Attacks can take many forms.
Defense attorneys may bring up someone’s prior criminal record, including acts of theft, burglary and perjury, Blanarik said, noting that can speak to a person’s truthfulness. Judges will instruct jurors they can use the evidence to evaluate testimony.
“It’s not establishing they’re a bad person,” Blanarik said. “But it’s something that the jurors can consider in assessing what the person said, how they said it and their ability to recall.”
Mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse: It’s all fair game for an attorney trying to establish that a testifying victim might have cognitive trouble, or make things up, or suffer from a cloudy memory.
“Within that context — a battered spouse, an abused child — it seems it is going after them, but not really,” Blanarik said. “It’s a limited purpose. A defense attorney is looking to make a sufficient point to a jury that they should not accept at face value what they heard be testified to.”Serbin frames the approach differently.
“It is a defense technique to embarrass and humiliate the victims to discourage them from going forward,” he said.
Accordingly, he prepares his clients “for that type of procedure, whether it’s deposition testimony or at trial.”
“I warn them of these techniques and try to give them personal support,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll bring in a social worker, or if they’re seeing a psychologist, I typically suggest they make arrangements in advance and after the proceeding to meet with their counselor and help them deal with emotional issues.”
Prosecutors can pre-empt aggressive defenses.
Stacy Parks Miller, the Centre County district attorney, said for her that starts outside the courtroom.“We simply are honest with our victims and let them know what to expect and also assure them how we plan to deal with it,” Parks Miller said in an email. “If the victim has vulnerabilities, and they have been ruled admissible and relevant, we are honest with the jury about them and show the jury that this is precisely why the perpetrator chose the victim.”
Juries are told abusers often target easily isolated victims who are unlikely to report crimes or, if they do, may not be seen as credible, Parks Miller said.
“So it comes as no surprise that when caught, they seek to exploit these very same factors to defend themselves,” she said.
Her prosecutors have other means of thwarting attempts to discredit victims. They can emphasize corroboration of a victim’s statement. They can debunk myths, such as the canard that victims who wait to report abuse have suspect motives. And they can aggressively file motions or object in court against overly intrusive character attacks.
“These strategies help to refocus the case back to a review of all the evidence, not an attempt to prevail by simply smearing the victim,” Parks Miller said.
Children receive an extra, and furry, measure of support.
Princess, a yellow lab and canine advocate, accompanies youth throughout cases. In court, her head will rest in their laps, unseen by juries, as they testify against their accusers and recall abuse.“She makes a horrible experience bearable, and I wish every DA’s office could have a canine for their children,” she said. “We are so lucky.”
Failing the victims
Cathleen Palm’s group formed in 2003 to help overturn a state law that barred children in abuse cases from having testimony options, such as closed-circuit TV and other alternatives to open court.Protect our Children Committee succeeded. But Palm, a Berks County mother, said the judicial system still fails young victims too often by making it easier for defenses to undermine them.
Investigators, for example, need to interview a victim together as soon as possible after a disclosure, rather than string out the process. Having to tell their stories several times to different strangers can be intimidating and stressful for already traumatized victims, Palm said.
It can also jeopardize their cases.
With each account, small details may vary. When the third differs from the fifth, “if you’re a defense attorney, you jump on that,” Palm said.
“If you expose a child to five interviews, you’re automatically starting to whittle away at that child’s opportunity for justice,” she said.
Despite the efforts of POCC and other victim advocacy groups, Pennsylvania still does not allow experts to testify about how molested children react and behave. Jurors remain unaware that a major life event, such as a wedding or a first child, often spurs adults to report childhood assaults, Palm said. They don’t know that one victim coming forward can inspire others to follow suit.
In the end, Palm said, jurors may doubt and a predator may walk.
“The person who did in fact harm this child gets to elude justice and accountability because of the way we handled this child and this investigation,” she said.
And in the end, the truth may become another victim, fallen by the kind of blows Beth Docherty withstood in a courtroom long ago.
“I felt alone,” she said.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648 and email@example.com. Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616 and mdawson@ centredaily.com.