Rape trial lets family share decades of pain, secrets
A new state law is making it easier for prosecutors to bring accused sexual offenders like Roger Alan Scherner to trial. Scherner, 79, is charged with molesting a 7-year-old relative. Prosecutors in the case are using as evidence testimony from some of the more than a half-dozen relatives who say Scherner had sexually abused them in the past 40 years.
Seattle Times staff reporter
From a glossy 8-by-11 photo, the image of the 13-year-old girl with shiny blond hair, blue plaid Catholic schoolgirl uniform and white headband smiled at the jury in a King County courtroom Monday.
In the witness chair a few feet away, the woman that girl became wiped tears as she told a room full of strangers about how on a family road trip 33 years ago, she was raped by a male relative. Trembling, the woman, now 49, described dealing with confusion, fear and physical injuries after the man approached her while she was spending the night at a relative's California home and molested her.
She didn't tell anyone about the abuse, and the statute of limitations expired. Roger Alan Scherner, the man she accused of the abuse — who has since been accused by more than half a dozen relatives of rape and child molestation over several decades — was never prosecuted.
But a new state law is allowing her painful story to be heard in an effort to prosecute Scherner, 79, on child- rape and child-molestation charges involving a relative who was allegedly molested during a family vacation in Bellevue in 2002 when she was 7.
The law went into effect in June and is being used for the first time in King County by Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Julie Kays, who is prosecuting Scherner. It makes it much easier for alleged prior victims of a defendant to testify as witnesses in a current sexual-offense case.
Before, prosecutors could raise a defendant's alleged sexual-offense history under very narrow circumstances under a law covering all past criminal history. The new law addresses sexual offenses separately and broadens the guidelines for allowing evidence into trial.
The change will help prosecute and convict sexual offenders, legal observers and victims' advocates predict.
"It makes a huge difference," said Mary Ellen Stone, director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. The issue of admissibility of the commission of past sexual offenses was part of the resource center's legislative agenda, and Stone and her staff helped advocate for the change in Olympia.
Sometimes, Stone said, victims of rape and molestation do not have significant physical evidence of the abuse — perhaps too much time expired before the assault was reported, or the type of assault did not leave much physical evidence. The problem can be magnified in the case of children, who are often "groomed" by the offender for years and subject to nonviolent molestation such as grabbing, touching or rubbing.
Evidence of a pattern of abuse over years can be critical in a prosecution, Stone said.
"Having this other person or people say, 'This happened to me too, in the same kind of way,' can absolutely increase convictions," she said. "Juries can see, 'Oh, there's a pattern, he's done this before.' It can combat the idea that they can't convict an 80-year-old guy. Because now they can see he's been doing this for the past 40 years."
A judge still considers and rules upon the admissibility of the testimony before trial, using factors such as the similarity of the alleged prior acts to the acts charged, before admitting it. During pretrial hearings, Scherner's defense attorneys opposed allowing the testimony of prior alleged victims.
Case that led to change
The new law was spurred in part by public pressure in the wake of the arrest of convicted sex offender Terapon Dang Adhahn in connection with the 2007 kidnapping, rape and slaying of 12-year-old Zina Linnik of Tacoma, according to those in the King County Prosecutor's Office familiar with the legislation. Prosecutors did not want to discuss specifics of the new law until the Scherner case has concluded.
Scherner, of Carmel, Calif., is charged with three counts of first-degree child molestation. He has been held in the King County Jail since being arrested in Florida in March by the U.S. Marshals Service after fleeing before his trial was set to begin. Officers found him with a loaded gun, wigs and foreign currency.
According to charging papers, the child he's charged with molesting, who is now 14, told her mother and police in 2003 in California — where most of the family now lives — that Scherner touched her sexually and forced her to touch him while on a family vacation in Bellevue.
The Seattle Times typically does not name victims of sexual assault.
Bellevue police began looking into the case soon after. According to court documents, detectives interviewed nine other family members or family friends spanning three generations who said they, too, had been sexually abused by Scherner over the years. None had pressed charges until now.
The statute of limitations varies by crime and by state and has been revised in many states over the past several decades. In Washington state, suspects can be prosecuted for incest, child rape and child molestation up until the alleged victim's 21st birthday, or seven years after the last incidence of abuse, whichever occurs later.
Two adults tell of abuse
Two of Scherner's alleged victims, now adults, testified Monday.
The 49-year-old relative said she had been too afraid to tell anyone what happened and still struggles with the guilt of not coming forward before other relatives were harmed.
"We were a close family, taught to respect our elders," she said, sobbing, on the witness stand. "I didn't know about the birds and the bees. I just felt really scared."
Even after she told her parents about what Scherner did, the family still socialized with him, she said.
Another woman, now 46, told the jury that Scherner — a close friend of her parents — molested her on a family ski trip when she was 13. Scherner approached her while she was sleeping on a couch and touched her, telling her "shhh" when she began to protest, she testified.
Scherner's wife of 56 years, Joanne Scherner, was called to the stand Monday by Kays and, in response to most questions, invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate herself. The judge did require her to testify about an interview with a police detective in 2007. She said that she told the detective that during a conversation after her husband's arrest, Scherner told her, "I'm sorry."
But they never discussed details, she said in court.
"He has never told me what this whatever-you-call-it is about. He has never explained himself."
Scherner faces 12-½ to 16-½ years in prison if convicted as charged.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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