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Something like hope twinkled in my client's eyes on Friday afternoon. A jury returned a verdict in his favor, awarding damages, including punitive damages, against a woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct with her young daughter. The jury also awarded damages to a young girl who was alleged to have let a game of doctor go too far. Did my client, a man, get his reputation back?
It was a painful trial. In 2008, a girl who had just turned four showed an interest in another child's rear end. The girl's mother quizzed her, repeatedly, about this child's play. The girl eventually described a game of doctor. She accused a nine-year-old of putting her finger in her bottom. The mother was outraged, and called the Department of Children and Families. An investigation was opened, and the case was eventually closed. The children were playing; all adults showed appropriate concern.
But the mother didn't let it rest. Several months later, a new story emerged. Now my client, a man in his 30s, was alleged to have been playing doctor as well, although he tried to use his penis in the game. The mother claimed her daughter told her that he tried to place his penis in her mouth and in her bottom. The mother said her daughter told her the man threatened her and the other children involved. Once again, DCF was called. Once again, the case was closed.
Records from the child protection agency revealed concerns that the child's mother had spent too much time coaxing, and perhaps coaching, the child on what to say. The child appeared to answer questions by rote. The mother seemed more concerned to have folks believe her daughter had been abused than hoping that none of this had ever occurred. There was no physical evidence to support the claims. None of the other children allegedly present when this took place corroborated the story. Even the woman's daughter recanted and changed course from time to time. The mother went to family, friends and acquaintances to discuss what to do about the abuse she claimed her daughter suffered.
No criminal charges were ever filed, although the police investigated and met with prosecutors. The Department of Children and Families found the claims unsubstantiated. My client, a successful businessman from a prominent family in a small shoreline town in Southern Connecticut, was devasted. He is ashamed now to leave his home. The look on his neighbors' faces tells him they know he has been accused of being a child molester.
He filed suit against the mother of the child. Friday, the jury found that this mother, a housewife, had defamed him and had engaged in outrageous conduct, awarding him $105,000 in compensatory damages. His neice, also accused of misconduct, was found to be victim of outrageous conduct: the jury awarded her $5,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded mulitple counts of punitive damages, intended to punish and deter the mother of the child. Under Connecticut law, each award entitles the plaintiffs to attorney's fees: this sum could be as high as another $200,000.
Will this verdict restore my client's reputation? Probably not. We told the jury to give us nothing if they could but undo the harm of the whispering campaign designed and intended to destroy his reputation. The award of monetary damages was a substitute for the justice we really sought.
But I am relieved that this man can now hold his head high in his community. A jury has concluded that a young mother sought to destroy him by uttering false statements and engaging in intolerable conduct. It is as powerful a statement as a community can make in a case of this sort.
While I count this case a win, I am sobered by just how easily it could have turned into a disaster. Child sex abuse claims are often brought with nothing more than the suspect say-so of a very young child. Juries are inclinded often to believe these kids, especially when their testimony is buttressed by the expert opinions of those prepared to explain away every inconsistency. My client could easily have convicted in a criminal court had the state brought charges and sentenced to many years imprisonment. Instead, he is now vindicated: the line separating vindication from disaster is too close for comfort.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
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By Mary Devoy
In May 2007, my husband and I were asked to assist an acquaintance in putting down a 14-year-old dog because the owner was not strong enough to do so on her own. As we own several dogs and cannot bear to see an animal suffer, we agreed.
The teenaged daughter of the dog's owner witnessed this discussion and protested the plan vehemently. One week later, the day before the planned euthanasia, a county police officer and an investigator stood on my front porch. The investigator who whisked my husband of 15 years into his vehicle told him that the girl had accused him of touching her.
My husband was never alone with the girl. He is a moral and truthful man. We were shocked by this claim but certain that nothing could or would come of it. Unfortunately, we were wrong.
What began as an innocent conversation with a neighbor became our never-ending horror story. In the 3-1/2 years since, we've been fighting a legal system that, without notice, has curtailed our ability to travel, to obtain life insurance, even to petition for redress.
My husband was charged with aggravated sexual battery. Attorneys told us police needed no corroboration for the charge; the accusation alone was sufficient, and jail time, at least in our county, was expected.
- So think about this the next time you tick off an ex wife, or one of your children. You may be next in line to apply for life on the sex offender registry.
We hired a private investigator, who uncovered many pieces of evidence that proved the accuser wrong. But in a criminal trial with a minor, it's all inadmissible.
In the first preliminary hearing in early autumn of 2007 - four months after the accusation - neither the accuser nor her mother showed up. The prosecutor claimed the girl hadn't even been interviewed.
At the second preliminary hearing six weeks later, our lawyer advised us to take the plea the county offered, even though we'd told him that we would not plead guilty under any circumstances. The county was willing to drop one felony and reduce the other to a misdemeanor. But my husband would have to plead guilty and would become a registered sex offender.
He refused; he would not plead guilty to something that never occurred.
Then the lawyer said the county would accept a no-contest plea, but that my husband would still be a registered sex offender for at least 10 years and possibly for the rest of his life. If he didn't take it, a court date would be set in five to six months, and some jail time would be expected.
We were given five minutes to decide. My husband pleaded no contest. He's now a registered sex offender.
It still boggles the mind that the county was ready to schedule a trial in which he would be facing life in prison plus 20 years but then offered a plea in which the punishment consisted of being listed on the sex offender registry. If the county thought he was guilty and should go to prison for life, why would this deal be acceptable?
As an aside, one of the unknown consequences of the plea agreement is that you cannot buy life insurance while on probation. We discovered this during a routine upgrade of our insurance policy.
In February 2008, the Virginia State Trooper Sex Offender Task Force visited to verify that my husband lived at our address.
Three months later, the probation officer and the court-appointed therapist determined my husband was no threat to the community and closed his case. We seriously considered moving to Canada but discovered that Canada will not allow anyone with a conviction to become a citizen.
In September 2008 I learned of a pending bill in Congress, the International Megan's Law, which would require all registered sex offenders to request permission if they wanted to leave the United States, whether for vacation or business.
The next month the Virginia State Trooper Sex Offender Task Force member assigned to my husband advised him that a sample of his DNA is required before he re-registered, even though he is classified as a non-violent offender and his DNA had not been required when he was convicted.
We learned that in January, the Virginia General Assembly had passed a law to collect the DNA of all registered sex offenders. Lawmakers also increased the minimum time on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry from 10 to 15 years.
No one advised us of these bills. In fact, failure to register increased to a Class 6 felony, but my husband was never notified, and it was not posted on the Virginia State Police website.
We feel constantly under assault, and our plight is no doubt shared by thousands who have done no wrong but yet have been convicted with unjust laws passed under the guise of protecting children.
The sex offender registry, which set out to name the people who pose a true threat to society, instead has become a useless list of those who have been arbitrarily swept up in this legislative predator hysteria.
To fight for changes, my husband and I have formed Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia.
As of May, the 17-year-old deaf, frail, ignored dog was still alive, denied a death that would've been humane. My husband and I have not been so lucky.
But until the names of those who do not belong on the registries are removed, until they have a chance to live a safe and productive life - and until the only people confined under civil, not criminal, procedures are the most heinous, repeat and untreatable offenders - we will speak out.
Mary Devoy is executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia,, a not for profit based in Mechanicsville.
A grandfather gassed himself just hours after child porn police raided his home - even though he was innocent.
Last night his widow launched a bitter attack on the police after hearing at an inquest how detectives who seized his computers found nothing illegal.
[name withheld]'s home was raided and three laptop computers seized after intelligence led officers to his address after he stumbled upon one indecent picture and viewed it for a matter of seconds.
The inquest into his death heard that the 50-year-old amateur photographer gassed himself with fumes from his car just hours after police had executed a warrant at his home.
Coroner Nicholas Gardiner was told Thames Valley Police would not have brought any charges against Mr [name withheld] after finding no evidence on his laptops.
The investigation on July 28 was led by Interpol intelligence from Luxembourg after Mr [name withheld] innocently viewed the picture in March, 2009.
His widow [name withheld] had told the inquest in Oxford: 'It doesn't matter what you write on the death certificate, I know you're going to write down he took his own life but he didn't. His life was taken that morning when those police officers arrived at the house.'
The inquest was told that four officers turned up to Mr [name withheld]'s house in Banbury, Oxfordshire, at 9am with a warrant under the Child Exploitation and Welfare Protection Act to seize his computers.
Detective Sergeant Howard Berry told the coroner: 'There was no evidence but there was intelligence. Police in Luxembourg traced access to the website to the address."
'A picture had been viewed which was of an illegal nature. Intelligence came to police through international channels. Then there was a decision to investigate further and the warrant was issued.'
Mrs [name withheld], together with sons [name withheld] and [name withheld] and daughter [name withheld], said after the inquest: 'The police effectively took [name withheld]'s life. They may as well have shot him."
'The police when they turned up to the house treated him like he was guilty and treated him exactly like they would a convicted paedophile."
'I don't understand how accidently looking at one single picture for a matter of seconds in March 2009 has filtered down into an investigation in July 2010."
'They must have known he didn't look at any other pictures or visited any other website afterwards. Surely they can come to the conclusion he stumbled upon it?"
'He would have been totally shocked by these claims. He would have been thinking about what people would think and what would he tell the people he worked for."
'I want people to know he is innocent and did not do anything wrong.'
An hour after police had left the house, Mr [name withheld] drove to a DIY store and bought piping and wiring before returning home and locking himself in the garage, the inquest heard.
Mrs [name withheld] discovered his body slumped in the driver's seat of his car after she had returned home from work.
He had left a note on the passenger seat which read: 'Hi [name withheld], sorry, time to go. Of course I love you, [name withheld], [name withheld], [name withheld], [name withheld] and [name withheld]. The police have taken the computers.'
Mrs [name withheld] said he left bank account and shares details at the bottom of the note and signed it off with a sketch of the family.
Coroner Nicholas Gardiner, recording a verdict of suicide, said: 'Whether or not the warrant was rightly issued is to be taken up elsewhere. Clearly it impacted on Mr [name withheld] and he had obviously spent time thinking about it and decided to take his own life, and that is how I have to record his death.'