My nephew, Chris, an autistic and mentally challenged teenager, was charged with rape and sodomy about a year ago. These are very serious crimes that he did not commit. The basis for the charges was a statement by a 5 year old in school, who described being molested in the bathtub. When questioned about his remark, he said that it didn’t really happen to him, but another 5 year old boy had told him about it.
Only after hours of questioning did the second boy say anything that remotely resembled the original story. According to a doctor who examined the second boy, there is no physical evidence that anything whatsoever has occurred. However, the second boy has an uncle who is an autistic teenager in the same school district. The trooper assigned to school security said in court that he knew immediately, when he heard the story, who the perpetrator was. It is interesting because it isn’t clear, even now, who the victim was.
Chris was first interviewed with his parents present. Since the trooper seemed to be concerned about sex, he confessed to having been ‘caught’ ‘having sex’ with his girlfriend. Further clarification from his parents revealed that when he was caught, both he and the girl were fully clothed, and he hadn’t realized there was a critical line there. A week later, Chris was taken from a respite house by the police, denied access to a lawyer, and deliberately separated from the counsel of his parents. After he was taken into custody, the trooper, a big man, an authority at the school, who’s office was right next to Chris’s special ed classroom, told him that if he did not agree to the charges and sign off on them, he would never get out of jail; but if he signed the confession, he could go home.
The list of charges has as many as 100 instances, over a period of several months when the boys were only occasionally together, and always supervised. Chris was then handed over to an interrogator with this pre-written list of culpable actions, which he initialed one by one. At his arraignment later that afternoon, the judge asked him if he needed a lawyer, and he said that, no, he didn’t need a lawyer because he was going home.
At the Huntley Hearing called to challenge the veracity of the confession, the interrogator and the state trooper who arrested Chris said that they didn’t notice anything unusual about him, a physically immature, autistic teenager with the mental development of a much younger child, and a markedly odd social presentation. The trooper who picked him up said that he was cheerful and direct, and bragged about his actions. Chris called his mother when he was told the police were coming to arrest him and she told him to ask for a lawyer before the phone was forcibly retired. The trooper also said that after the first interview, he knew that he would have to talk to Chris alone if he was going to get a confession. Chris says that he asked for his mother and a lawyer, but was told to ‘forget it’.
The interrogator said that he was certain Chris understood the charges because he was reading them off the computer screen. Despite being presented with school records, which clearly show that Chris reads and comprehends what he reads at approximately third grade level, and therefore could not possibly have read the 5 page confession off the computer screen and understood what he read, the interrogator was unshakable in his assertion. The judge ruled that he would not challenge the integrity of the police.
We are looking at a trial in a small town court where the judge has made it clear that he stands behind the police who, we can see, are not stating the facts as they occurred, but have rather fabricated a story to make their beliefs about the case clear to the rest of us. We can’t put the defendant on the stand to refute their claims because he is autistic and mentally challenged, the proceedings have confused him. If the prosecutor starts to badger him, it is unclear how he will respond. But, in any case, he doesn’t act ‘normal’. He is autistic, and he has been in the town jail for almost a year, mostly in solitary. Though there has been no consideration of his disability in the court proceedings, in the jail they have had to make some adjustments for him. He is naive and open, and easily confused by the attitudes of the other prisoners. They initially decided to skip his medication, So, he spends his time alone in a cell with coloring books and crayons, mazes and word search puzzles, and card games.
The prosecutor has asserted the most severe charges and punishment possible. They are talking about 25 years in a state prison. This developmentally disabled, 110 lb, immature boy cannot survive 1 year in the state pen; worse yet, labeled as a pedophile.
The lawyers have arranged for him to ‘plead’ to a lesser charge, and be placed in the care of the NYS Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
The downside is we have to ask him to lie again. And, even with the lesser charge, he will be labeled as ‘sex offender’. This is tough to swallow because he did not do anything, and it is clear, even to Chris by now, that he should not have lied to save himself the first time. Given the weakness of the evidence, it isn’t clear that anything happened at all. But our lawyer says the statute is vague, and the jury can convict if convinced that anything at all occurred. It’s a big risk to go before a small town jury, up against a crying mother, lying police, and a confession that lists horrible crimes the defendant could never have dreamed of when he put his initials next to them.
The lawyer said it would be best to plead.
The Plea Hearing was a nightmare. The plea had been decided in advance by our lawyer and the prosecutor. The proceedings were complicated and rigidly structured. Chris had to be coached for his role at every step. Initially, the judge asked him if he understood the purpose of the hearing and his role. When he didn’t reply, there was a break for coaching. After he agreed that he understood, the judge grandly repeated the oath to swear him in from the bench, and after a long pause he agreed to tell the truth. The lawyer then recited a confession that should have been agreed upon by both lawyer and prosecutor and asked him to concurr, but having just sworn to tell the truth, Chris didn’t respond. He just swore to tell the truth, and now everyone is waiting for him to lie.
When he finally acknowledged the statement of his plea, the prosecutor rejected it on the grounds that the assertion wasn’t serious enough. There was a big PowWow at the bench before the proceedings continued. The judge told our lawyer that if Chris didn’t acknowledge a more serious action, he would substitute the original confession into the plea.
After more coaching and explanations, our lawyer read out a more serious confession, and Chris, after a long pause, said “yes”. When the judge then asked him to repeat the assertion of wrongdoing that was the currently agreed upon confession, there was another pause for whispered encouragement and coaching. Finally, he stumbled through a repetition of the words that had been read to him.
The judge then asked where the events had happened. Chris said “At home?” The prosecutor then came over to ask if he knew the age of the alleged victim. He said no. He does know his nephew’s age, but no one had told him what to say, so he didn’t know how to answer the question.
If he is lucky, this innocent victim of a witch hunt will find himself in another institution where they at least are competent to deal with his disability, but with a very dark cloud of suspicion hanging over his head. We are still waiting to hear from OMRDD. If he makes it, Chris will need time to recover from the trauma of a total loss of boundaries between truth and lies, and more than a year of sitting alone in a cell. He twitches and his hands tremble when he raises them to gesture. He has lost 30 pounds complains constantly about the cold. He has trouble sleeping, and tends to fall into a paranoid mindset regarding the people around him. He occasionally wonders how he can hide when he ‘gets out’ so that the school cop, his primary accuser, won’t find him and kill him.
It is going to take time, but hopefully, he will be able to move into a residential program where these accusations won’t be held against him.
And hopefully, he won’t loose the program that buys his freedom to cost cutting measures and find himself back in the courtroom under mortal threat.
If he isn’t lucky, well . . . he won’t survive.
JUDITH BELLO can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org