The Witnesses Begin – Clear a Belle

The court officer led the first witness from the door, through the gate into the middle of the courtroom.  The court officer was not exactly petite, blonde woman, average height and fit build. Next to the witness she looked tiny, the witness was a huge African American man, his suit properly tailored.  The court clerk asked him to swear that the testimony he gave would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God.  His voice matched his body, strong and confident, and the court officer led him to the stand.

Attorney Juarez faced him, and asked him to state and spell his name – “Gregg Anthony Belle”, G R E G G and B E L L E.  What were his parents thinking?  Give him two names with extra letters, so he would always have to spell both?

We began with hearing about his credentials, he had been working with sex offenders since his post-doc.  He had run the Bridgewater Treatment Center.  You wonder what got him into it – was he fascinated with the idea of helping these people?  Was it about the victims?  Was it simply a field which  he identified when finishing graduate school as somewhere there was a lack of good professionals, and so a good niche?

His CV is entered into evidence, and labeled as Exhibit 3.

Juarez asks him how he had evaluated John.  Belle stated that he had done interviews, reviewed records, and applied an actuarial tool. Belle was Juarez’s witness, they had planned how this information would flow. It was like a high school play with well practiced lines, but lacking actors who were going to make it.  Of course, when you are discussing sexual deviance all day, developing a level of clinical detachment is essential. 

Juarez took a thick document, walked over to Schmidt at the defense table and showed it to her.  Schmidt nodded, and Juarez asked “permission to approach the witness your honor?”  She looked up like we were playing the game “Mother May I”? 

Judge MacLeod smiled in an amused way as she said “yes”.  Every gesture from her seemed to be trying to make the courtroom warm, friendly, without sacrificing the decorum at all.  It was an amazing balance, like a perfectly run elementary classroom.  The authority is absolutely unquestioned and untested, so there is no need to prove it, and everyone can get the learning done.

Juarez walked forward and handed Belle the document.  “Do you recognize this document?”

“Yes” Belle wasted no words, he answered the question, and nothing else

“And what is it?”

“It is my report on John”

“and in it do you state a diagnosis?”

“Yes”

“and what is that diagnosis?”

Come on Juarez, stop asking questions where you get a “yes”, and ask the whole question the first time. 

“Paraphelia NOC Non-Consent”

She then asks about the risk factors for re-offending.  Belle provides a list – prior sexual offending, age of the first offense, unknown victims, unrelated victims, non-consenting nature of the crime, intimacy deficits, and cognitive distortion.  Here he is hitting his stride, he provides the list with rhythm in his voice, turning from cop to college professor.

Switching from general facts about psychology to facts  about John is the challenge, he’s has notes that John had rape fantasies beginning at age 10, but no longer thinks this way.  He then notes that sexual offender treatment does reduce the risk to re-offend.  This brings us to the first re-offense, the U-Conn incidents, and there, Judge Macleod asks them to stop and call it a day. 

She cautions us to not discuss, to try not to think or about the case, and to get a good night’s sleep.  Wesley stands within the gate and recites “All those having business before the Honorable Bonnie MacLeod and this court depart from here and return tomorrow at 9:00 in the morning, and ye shall  be heard. God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and this Honorable Court.”

Everyone rises and the jury is led upstairs.  I grab my stuff, and head up one flight of stairs, to the elevator to go down.  Three of us are waiting together, we have so much in common now, but we can’t discuss it.  Two more of us appear from the stairwell.  It’s an odd silence, but somehow talking about the weather doesn’t seem right either. The elevators finally come, two at once, we crowd in, and quietly head down.  I don’t think any of us were obeying the directive to not think about it.    

  

Opening Statements – “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”

The court supplied numbered note pads in envelopes on our chairs, but the judge noted that if you chose to take notes in opening statements, note clearly that these statements are not evidence, and should not be what you consider in reaching the verdict.  If we weren’t supposed to consider them, why have them?  But I sat I my comfortable chair to watch the show.

Attorney Melissa Juarez faced us with a written statement set on the podium which had been turned to our direction.  She straightened the edges of her papers.  I could see her coaches’ work, telling her technique to remain calm.  A deep breath, a big smile, eye contact, and “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” – the starting sentence was so expected it was unexpected – her accent was slight, enough so you knew English wasn’t her only language, but slight enough that there was no difficulty in understanding her.  A few words were oddly pronounced, but it was at the level you notice whether people say  “car” or “cah” (the second being the correct term for an automobile in a Massachusetts court room).

She was young and impeccably groomed, long hair not a strand out of place, power suit, and probably ran marathons.

She told us the story.  We had heard it before, but now with more detail. We would hear it with more detail again and again, but this was her chance to really get the horror inside our heads.  I will write it out as I heard it, if you do not want to read violence, skip ahead to the dotted line.

In 1982 John offered a ride to a 13 woman named Tracy who said she was going near the airport in Falmouth.  When she realized the airport was closed, she tried to open the door, but the door handle had been removed.  John drove her to a remote place, hit her over the head with rock which he had in his hat, put her in handcuffs, and raped her with a vibrator.

A few weeks later, John again offered a ride to a young woman, hit her over the head with a rock which was in a sock, tied her up with rope, drove her to a remote place, held her at knife point, and raped her with a vibrator.

The third one sounds the same, except she told him she was pregnant. John felt her belly, and let her go.

———–

Listening to this from Attorney Juarez didn’t have the same gut clenching horror as it had had the first  time. Maybe it was the repetition, or maybe it was her clinical style, she was reading facts. She did not look up from the paper often.  After getting through the initial crimes, we heard John’s life continue.

We heard of him being released from the treatment center, and going to live in the community.

I have trouble seeing the issue with the U-Conn events. He approached more than 100 women on the University of Connecticut campus in 1999. He told them a story about needing someone to watch his children, or his puppies. Three of these women got in his car, and he drove to an abandoned house, when he got there, he said something like “oh, my wife’s car is not here, she must have taken the kids, I’ll take you back to campus”.

Juarez described these as if approaching women on a college campus was a crime.  I would never have married if that was the case.  None of the women said John had touched them in appropriately, but he was  convicted of stalking and served 18 months.

And, back to the community, and back to the third offense, solicitation of sex and possession of a stun gun.  In 2008 he was stopped by Springfield police for a traffic violation; a prostitute who was with him at the time told authorities John had asked if he could tie her up and she agreed. Along with the stun gun, police also found a piece of pipe, a pair of gloves, rope and bleach.

————-

After telling the story, Juarez told us how convincing the testimony would be.  The accent was strongest on words beginning with “a” “actuarial” and “aparaphilia” – that’s the word I heard, I didn’t know it,  so I didn’t know it was  incorrect. It’s actually not the word she meant, which was “paraphilia”, but it always seemed to have an “a” attached to the beginning. So far, the description of what we would hear wasn’t persuasive, maybe I was just successful in not making any opinions until I was supposed to.

Sandra Schmidt took the podium to present how she was going to convince us that John was not sexually dangerous.  Actually, the point she made was that she didn’t have to prove it.  The other side had the burden of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt.  She looked at us, made real eye contact, and reminded us that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.

At this point I knew that I couldn’t find John to be sexually dangerous, a system that could lock him up not for a crime, but for a possible future crime was not just, and I would prevent that.

Schmidt made us like John, she described his college experience, working to get an education through ROTC “however, his education was interrupted by his incarceration”.  She described his relationship with Lisa, his fiancée, which whom he now had a “non-sexual relationship”, but full of love.  “You’ll get to hear from Lisa” she offered as a special treat.

We learned about the work at the Treatment Center in Bridgewater, John took every available group, and actively participated, became a peer leader, did it all.

Was all this enough to prevent him from being sexually dangerous again?  That was the Commonwealth’s job to disprove, and I had more than a reasonable doubt.