The trial of a Chalfant man accused of sexually molesting twin teenage sisters (and one other teenage girl) is underway at Mono County Superior Court.
Michael J. Harris is charged with 26 counts of child molestation against three victims.
The trial began October 29.
The first disclosure of sexual abuse to Mono County Investigator John Rutkowski was made by one sister on August 3, 2007. Her twin made similar allegations in a separate interview five days later. Harris was arrested on August 20, 2007.
The prosecution is basing its case largely on the allegations of the sisters.
The defense argues that the sisters have concocted the story in order to free themselves from a difficult and abusive home environment.
The Sheet has sat in on approximately 70% of the trial. This is how it’s gone thus far:
The D.A. makes his case
Mono County Assistant District Attorney Todd Graham is prosecuting the case against Harris.
His first two witnesses called were the sisters themselves, and the courtroom atmosphere was tense. The first sister to testify asked for frequent breaks and the second sister stormed out of the courtroom at one point when Defense Attorney Therese Hankel asked her about statements she had made to Mono County Child Protective Services (CPS) about her mother.
She was heard by all, including the jury, shouting in the back room, “This is f%$^ing bulls^%$!”
A door then slammed. This was soon followed by a bailiff asking for a Band-Aid, as she’d apparently injured her hand slamming the door.
Both girls said they were molested between the ages of 10 and 15 years old, and that their mother, who was dating Harris at the time, did not believe them when they told her about it.
Both the mother and Mike Harris were described by the girls as being physically and emotionally abusive. The girls were also very resentful of their mother’s disciplinary tactics, the large number of chores they were required to do and her refusal to allow them to date boys.
Reporter Lara Kirkner said much of the first sister’s preliminary testimony, taken in 2007, contradicted the testimony she gave in court. In explanation, the now-17 year old said she is older now and more able to talk about what happened.
An expert witness testified that full “disclosure” of such traumatic events is often not immediate. “We know that children delay [disclosure]. It’s a process.”
She also said victims tend to disclose to their peers first as opposed to authority figures, and that is what happened in this case.
Defense Attorney Therese Hankel continues to argue that the disclosures started occurring when the twins figured out that leveling some serious allegations might emancipate them from an abusive and unhappy household.
She also contends that the girls soon found willing accomplices within CPS and law enforcement who were all too eager to believe them.
A videotape of Investigator Rutkowski’s interview with one of the twins drew particular scrutiny from Ms. Hankel.
Rutkowski testified that he’d been an Investigator with the Mono County Sheriff’s Dept. since 1982 and had attended child abuse training seminars since the late 1980s.
Despite this training, he maintained little neutrality during his interview with the alleged victim. At one point, he even thanked the girl for coming forward as he had heard “rumors that Harris had been having sex with other girls.”
At the end of the interview, Rutkowski gave the girl a pep talk before asking a few, final leading questions without any basis provided by his interview subject.
“Have you ever seen a porn movie?”
“Does he walk around the house naked?”
As for CPS, Hankel made a big deal about CPS case worker Alex Ellis removing one of the girls from a foster home. The girl had become upset because the foster mother had begun to exercise some discipline and set ground rules, so the girl claimed she had made a suicide attempt. Though the foster mother found this claim dubious in the absence of any outward physical signs of such an attempt, Ellis immediately removed the girl and placed her in another home with her sister.
There was also testimony that Ellis used to chauffeur the other sister from her foster home to visit her boyfriend.