WILKES-BARRE — The prosecution claimed the defendant committed “a cowardly crime of opportunity,” while the defense deemed the victim’s account “a drug-induced nightmare,” likening it to a reported alien abduction.
In the end, a jury couldn’t agree on who was right.
That sums up the arguments and verdict at the Victims Resource Center’s 35th annual mock rape trial presented Wednesday evening at King’s College.
The purpose of the trial is to focus attention on the most under-reported violent crime in America while giving students, faculty and the public a chance to see the inner workings of the criminal justice system, said Paul Lindenmuth, associate technical professor for King’s Criminal Justice program.
Titled “Roommate Or Rapist? You Decide,” the mock trial was overseen by a real-life judge, with Luzerne County prosecutors and defense attorneys presenting evidence and King’s College students acting as victim, defendant and jurors.
The case centered on Lauren, an attractive 21-year-old sociology/theology major, who convincingly testified before county Judge Tina Gartley that she awoke in the bed of her boyfriend, Matt, to find his roommate, Joe, on top of her after Matt had left for work. She struggled and tried to push him off, but he was too powerful and she became paralyzed with fear.
Allison Knick, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, testified about Lauren’s ripped pajama pants, her bruising and toxicology tests that came back negative for drugs and alcohol.
Retired state police commander Paul Mendofik, playing a city detective, testified about his interviews with the victim and defendant and that the DNA results in the case were inconclusive.
Joe, a clean-cut, senior criminal justice major and self-described virgin and practicing Mormon, testified that he was the designated driver for Lauren and Matt when they went to a party at which Lauren got drunk and took pills, presumably ecstasy-based molly.
He claimed Lauren scratched him on the ride back to the apartment because he wouldn’t stop at a restaurant as she had asked, and that’s how his skin got under her fingernails. He said he heard Lauren and Matt having rough sex in the apartment after they returned from the party, which would explain her bruises and ripped pants, and that he never touched Lauren after Matt went to work.
In his closing argument, county Public Defender Joel Zelkowitz held up a tabloid newspaper before the jury, noting that in almost every report of alien abduction, the supposed abductee truly believed he or she was abducted. He said he’s sure Lauren truly believes she was raped, but that memory was actually a drug- and alcohol-induced nightmare.
County Assistant District Attorney Angela Sperrazza attacked Joe’s credibility, pointing to inconsistent testimony and his nervousness during the police interview, and questioning how a virgin could tell the difference between rough sex and regular sex.
The mock trial ended with a hung jury, which wasn’t surprising.
Before the presentation, Gartley noted that rape trials are among the most difficult for a jury because it usually comes down to whose story to believe — the victim’s or the accused’s. Most often, she said, an accused rapist doesn’t deny having sex with the victim, but maintains that it was consensual.
Pat Rushton, outreach/education manager at the VRC, said the mock trials came about because “there is such a great need to educate the community. There are so many myths surrounding rape,” he said.
The most crucial message is that there is help and support available for rape victims, and it doesn’t matter how much time has passed since a rape occurred. It’s also significant that rape is not gender-specific; there are plenty of male victims as well, he said.
Lindenmuth said King’s has been hosting the mock rape rials for the past several years because audiences grew so large they could no longer fit in a courtroom at the county courthouse.
“And we think it’s important to get this message out, with rape being the most under-reported violent crime,” Lindenmuth said. “This is information that needs to get out there … so people are more aware and more willing to prosecute.”