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MISTRIAL: Judge declares mistrial in case of man accused of sexually assaulting minors

Posted: Thursday, Sep 19th, 2013

By Ed Close and

Deborah Demander

Herald Reporters

EVANSTON – A man accused of sexually assaulting two minors faces an unknown future as his trial ended abruptly Wednesday with a mistrial.

Sean Smith was charged with one count of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree, one count of sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree and a third count of encouraging the victim to engage in sexual intrusion.

The trial began Monday, Sept. 16, with jury selection in the morning. On Monday afternoon, jurors and spectators heard opening arguments from Assistant County Attorney Lara Cooper and Smith’s defense attorney, Jack Vreeland.

In her opening remarks, Cooper said the case would be a hard one to listen to due to the graphic nature of testimony and details of the accusations.

Cooper said the main question revolved around whether there was sexual intercourse with one victim and sexual contact with the other victim. As to count three, Cooper said she would prove the defendant had engaged in behavior to groom the victim.

Although the victims lived in Kansas at the time the incident was reported, the alleged crime occurred in Evanston in late 2011.

Cooper asked the jury to listen to the evidence and return a verdict of guilty on all three counts.

Vreeland told the jury to expect the testimony of two young girls who had been watching inappropriate material on a computer or phone. He suggested the allegation came about within the context of a custody dispute between the unmarried parents of the victims.

“There is not a lot of physical evidence,” Vreeland said. “You will have to determine the credibility of the young girls and assess the circumstances of the girls and their parents and their lives at the time they reported.

“There is not sufficient evidence to convict my client, so I will ask for a not guilty verdict because of a lack of evidence,” Vreeland told the jury.

The first witness for the state’s case was the father of the victims. He testified that while in Kuwait, serving in the military, he received an emergency message that his children were in unsafe living conditions.

“I got an emergency leave and came back from Kuwait to care for my children,” he said.

He testified that his three daughters moved into his home in Kansas with his then-wife and her five children.

At one point, he said, some of the kids had viewed pornography on an iPhone. The father and his wife questioned the children, who were all younger than 10. It was then that his daughter wrote him a note saying that her mother’s boyfriend taught her about sex, he said.

The father testified that he immediately contacted authorities. Initially, only one daughter, a 9-year old, made allegations regarding Smith. After several weeks, a younger sibling also made allegations against Smith.

The father also testified that as a result of the tense situation, he began using methamphetamine. Under questioning by Cooper, he said he had been clean for four months, but that the state of Kansas currently has custody of his children, and he and his wife are divorcing.

Also testifying on Monday was a Kansas police officer, who responded to the hospital to take the initial report.

Angela Gonzales testified that she responded to the hospital in Topeka regarding a sexual assault on a child. After an initial interview with the victim, Gonzales passed the information on to Evanston law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families in Topeka.

Witness Erin Thompson, a detective with the Shawnee County Sheriff’s office in Topeka, testified that she interviewed the three siblings and found that the youngest had not been a victim.

Finally on Monday, Trisha Meusil, a social worker for DCF in Topeka, Kan. testified that she interviewed the children.

A video was then introduced into evidence, which showed the interviews of the two alleged victims.

Vreeland objected to the videos, saying that they were prejudicial.

The objection was overruled and the videos were played, showing an interview in which the two young alleged victims described acts allegedly carried out by the defendant.

On day two of the trial, Dr. David L. Corwin, an expert witness and professor at the University of Utah, testified concerning “delayed disclosure,” a term used to describe how victims delay coming forward concerning what happened to them and how that disclosure is gradual in nature.

“They have to think of them (the events) and that’s the first hurdle,” Corwin said.

Vreeland asked Corwin if suggestive questions during the interviews can alter the answers given.

“Yes, there are guidelines to follow in interviews to avoid suggestions, professional interviews,” Corwin said.

Dr. Antoinette Lasky was then called to the stand. Lasky is also an expert witness, though from a medical perspective. Lasky testified that identifying physical signs of a sexual assault from that long ago – any time after 72 hours ­– is difficult.

“Outside the window of 72 hours,” Lasky said, speaking of medical exams, “it is more to reassure the victims they are physically okay. We almost never find evidence of a physical nature from an event that has happened in the past.”

The two alleged victims were then brought to the stand one after another. The first is now 11 years old.

For the complete article see the 09-20-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 09-20-2013 paper.

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