ST. ALBANS CITY — The first of two sexual assault trials against Sen. Norm McAllister took a shocking twist this morning when the state dropped two charges of sexual assault against McAllister, ending a trial that began Wednesday.
Yesterday, the defense grilled the 21-year-old complainant about discrepancies in her testimony, including differences in deposition statements.
Prosecuting deputy state’s attorney Diane Wheeler refused to comment on the dismissal. Fellow state’s attorney Jim Hughes was not in attendance.
McAllister refused to comment. Defense attorney Brooks McArthur spoke on his behalf, saying that the state agreed to dismiss the charges after reviewing the alleged victim’s testimony in court yesterday. “I think that speaks for itself,” McArthur said.
McArthur said the prosecution made the right decision based on the witness’s “clear credibility issues.” When asked if the state should have realized the witness’s testimony would not stand up earlier, McArthur said, “I don’t believe they should have. I think Diane Wheeler acted very ethically.”
McArthur did add that he believed law enforcement should have compared their statements to address the initial discrepancies in the witness testimony.
McArthur refused to comment on McAllister’s next trial on sexual assault charges, for which a status conference has been scheduled in 30 days. When reporters asked why McAllister had told Seven Days reporter Mark Davis that he had engaged in intercourse with his accusers, McArthur replied, “I guess you’ll have to wait for the next trial to see.”
He also refused to comment on how the acquittal would affect McAllister’s campaign for re-election to the state senate.
When questioned if recordings in which McAllister allegedly admits to having acted inappropriately with his other accusers would be admitted as evidence in the forthcoming trial, McArthur said, “If the recordings are admitted, they won’t be the most significant aspect of the case.”
The 21-year-old complainant was the only witness to take the stand following opening statements yesterday. She sat for nearly five hours with her arms crossed, shifting and twisting uncomfortably, a scrawny 4-foot-11 who said she was 85 pounds in high school, when she alleges McAllister assaulted her.
In her opening statement, Wheeler said, the case was about “a secret. A secret [the alleged victim] had. A secret she kept ‘til May 7, 2015, when law enforcement encountered her during an investigation.”
Wheeler said the woman had taken a job as McAllister’s Senate intern after the alleged assaults because she needed the money, and because “she hoped it would give her credibility in the community.”
“She was young,” Wheeler told the jury. “She didn’t know what to do, except hope it wouldn’t happen again. She didn’t want anything but that job and the $200 a week. She didn’t want publicity. She didn’t want to ruin his career.”
The defense, on the other hand, consisting of attorneys David Williams and Brooks McArthur, opened by telling the jury the state’s case relied on the woman’s testimony, which was “inconsistent, even within her individual statements of critical details – when, how and where,” McArthur said. “There is no physical evidence, no medical evidence, scientific or DNA evidence, no pictures or recordings — all while she had a smartphone.”
McArthur told the jury they would see the alleged victim was a “confident, capable young woman, not in any way controlled by Norm McAllister.”
The woman has accused McAllister of multiple assaults — though exactly how many was a point of contention. She claimed McAllister had assaulted her a total of 30 times in her initial depositions, but on Wednesday told the jury she had been assaulted “more than five, less than 20” times.
That was not the only discrepancy. The alleged victim provided wholly contradictory statements as to when the alleged assaults occurred, where they occurred and even what transpired through two depositions, two attorney interviews and during her court testimony. The attorney interviews had been conducted mere weeks prior to her appearance in court, casting further doubt on her testimony.
Defense attorney David Williams ruthlessly interrogated the woman on the minutiae of her experience and conflicting accounts. She claimed to have been assaulted while working on McAllister’s farm as a 16-year-old, milking goats. The charges correspond with two specific incidents — one in which McAllister allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on him in an abandoned barn, and one in which McAllister allegedly dragged the girl by the wrist up into his bedroom, where he forced sexual intercourse.
Describing the incident in which McAllister allegedly dragged her upstairs, the woman said, “He put me on the bed. He was holding me down. I was still saying I did not want this to happen.”
She added there was “so much weight” and “I’m not very strong.”
Asked by Wheeler what she was thinking, the woman answered, “That I was in hell.”
Williams twice attempted to discredit the woman by painting detailed portraits of daily life both on McAllister’s farm and at the State House, where the woman also worked as McAllister’s Senate intern. He pointed out that farmhands lived on McAllister’s farm, that his wife gardened around and near the house daily, that additional tenants lived in the home, that McAllister’s son, Heath, visited the farm with his children almost daily — that there was a well-trafficked self-service vegetable stand in front of the house, and that the home had an open-door policy for egg customers, who daily would walk into the kitchen and take eggs from the refrigerator.
“While all this activity is happening, you allege that Norm McAllister violently dragged you upstairs and assaulted you in the bedroom he shared with his wife,” Williams said.
He also poked at the complainant for not reporting the alleged assaults while she worked at the State House, surrounded by police, reporters and government officials. In the final hour of the day, Williams forced the woman to acknowledge every single discrepancy in her testimony, right down to explicit sexual details.
Nevertheless, the discrepancies in the woman’s testimony were numerous and unmistakable. She swore under oath in her first deposition that McAllister’s abuse began the very first day she worked on his farm, when he came into his hay barn, sat on a bale and told her he wanted to bring her up to his room — only to then tell the jury, again under oath, that the abuse didn’t begin until weeks after she began, at which point McAllister drove her to an abandoned barn on his property and forced her to perform oral intercourse on him.
She described McAllister forcing her to have sexual intercourse in an old camper on his property. Williams played back her initial deposition, in which, when questioned if anything happened at the old camper, she replied, “Nothing happened at the camper.”
The woman told the jury she had never called for help during the alleged incidents because “there was no one around.” Williams played a segment of her initial deposition in which she claimed to have screamed “every single time” she was assaulted, followed by a recording of her second deposition, in which she said didn’t scream because “there was nobody around.” Both recordings were made within a 24-hour period.
“There’s a difference between screaming at him and screaming for help,” the woman said, raising her voice.
The woman claimed to have had purple hair when she was forced to perform oral sex by McAllister, which she alleged took place in late 2012. Williams scanned the woman’s Facebook profile pictures, noting that the photos only showed her with purple hair from January to February 2014, almost a year after she worked on McAllister’s farm.
Williams also offered as evidence a note, which the woman confirmed she had written and left on McAllister’s kitchen door in November 2014 — after volunteering on his Senate re-election campaign for four months, complicating the prosecution’s argument that the woman had continued working for McAllister despite the attacks because she was desperate for money.
The woman read the note aloud: “I wanted to sit down and talk. Hope you’re doing well. I don’t live that far out of town. Call me.” She confirmed it was her phone number written at the bottom of the note, below her signature.
Williams also used as evidence a Facebook post by the woman, made while she volunteered on McAllister’s re-election campaign in 2014, in which she said she could not believe how much she was learning about politics from her boss and urged everyone to vote for Norman McAllister and Dustin Degree for state senate.
The woman said she had gone to work for McAllister in Montpelier after the alleged attacks because it was an opportunity to better herself, particularly in the community’s eyes, and because she enjoyed learning about politics and the bustle of people.
Williams made his most incensing claim one minute before the court adjourned for the day, drawing audible exclamations of shock when he claimed that the woman had first alleged McAllister raped her to stop her jealous boyfriend from leaving her.
The woman, in tears before leaving the stand, will have to resume testimony today.
Recording the victim
Before the trial began on Wednesday, attorney Bob Hemley, representing the Burlington Free Press, argued against Judge Robert A. Mello’s ruling June 14 prohibiting journalists from recording the alleged victim’s testimony in any form. McAllister’s defense attorneys supported Hemley’s stance, saying their client wanted the public to hear the woman’s testimony as part of his right to a public trial.
Wheeler said the alleged victim had told her she would not testify if there were cameras, if she was being recorded. “She does not want to see herself on the evening news,” Wheeler said, arguing that the woman has not only no desire for publicity, but an aversion to it, noting that detectives reached out to her rather than her coming forward on her own. Wheeler also recalled the woman freezing up while detailing the incidents during an attorney meeting for fear construction workers outside could hear her.
“The private nature of her testimony outweighs its public value,” Wheeler said. She invoked the right to a fair trial, telling the judge there was a likelihood the woman would not appear, or perform her responsibility of a full and honest testimony, if distracted by the media.
“People do not go around sharing their private sex lives with the public,” Wheeler said.
Nevertheless, Hemley continued to press for reporters’ rights, at the behest of retired Burlington Free Press reporter Mike Donoghue. Donoghue repeatedly ignored requests he relinquish his front-row seat to the victims’ advocates, who said it was necessary for the alleged victim’s emotional balance during the trial to see them seated behind the prosecution. Donoghue offered instead to move over, allowing a three-foot space.
“What distinguishes this case is that it will be public, and continues to be public,” Hemley argued. “I might have a different view if this case wasn’t already widely publicized.”
He said the state had not provided sufficient evidence the alleged victim was “mentally infirm,” and assumed, regardless of the press, that the woman had been subpoenaed to appear. Wheeler told the court the alleged victim was not under subpoena, garnering audible surprise from those in the room.
“The public has an interest in evaluating the witness, as the defendant is a public figure,” Hemley said.
Mello ultimately ruled that press be allowed to make audio recordings of the woman’s testimony, while upholding his prior ruling on photography and video recordings.
If McAllister is convicted, he faces three years to life in prison and fines of up to $25,000 for each felony charge. The trial is scheduled to continue through June 17.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.