Judge to decide if repressed memory case goes to trial

BRENTWOOD – The evidentiary hearing to determine whether Exeter resident Phillip Bourgelais will go to trial for allegedly sexually abusing his daughter Rhianna Light between the ages of 6 and 7 ended after a full day of rebuttals for both sides on Thursday.

Rockingham County Superior Court Justice Tina Nadeau will now review extensive scientific and emotional testimony in order to determine whether the eight criteria needed to allow a repressed memory case have been met.

Light, now 18, says she began to recall suppressed memories of sexual abuse in 2001, first in fragments, and later in full memories.

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A New Hampshire state law known as the Hungerford Law prevents repressed and recovered memories from being admissible in court unless eight criteria are met. Of these, four concern the reliability of the science, while four are specific to the individual whose memories are in question, having to do with the age of the accuser when the alleged abuse took place, specific circumstances surrounding the abuse and the recovery process of the memories.

Testimony heard on this last day consisted of the defense’s rebuttal witness, Dr. David Medoff, and the prosecution’s witness, Daniel Brown, Ph.D., a Massachusetts psychologist and memory-recovery expert.

Medoff testified that the tests Brown used on Light were not valid, and the one that was valid showed “extremely severe pathology to the point that it wasn’t valid.”

Brown maintained that the tests were “open-ended” and there was no control over the selection of questions or the wording of the questions. He spoke about the Impact of Event Scale, a tool developed in the 1990s to assess traumatic event symptoms. He said Light scored within a range of suggestive trauma, so he used a more in-depth interview. “The error rate goes down by assessing in different ways,” he said.

The defense also cited studies done by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who strongly discredits the reliability of repressed memory, stating that recovered memories are “products of suggestion.”

Brown rebutted this statement. “People who have been abused and don’t trust easily are less suggestible,” he said.

“It would be very hard to intentionally score a certain way on these tests,” Brown said.

Defense attorney Andrew Cotrupi of Hampton also asked Brown if the person doing the testing “tried to fool the alleged victim to get them to answer right, in essence using tone and body gestures to communicate disapproval.”

“If I look at questions and notice some were answered incorrectly, I’ll re-ask them and ask the person to please try to answer correctly,” Brown answered.

The defense offered only a brief summation at the end. “This is a young woman who had severe problems, and there are chronic questions of her reliability,” Cotrupi said. “Hungerford is undisputed. The state is far from the burden of proof.”

“This case is about people,” said Howard Helrich, the prosecutor who replaced Brad Bolton, who originally worked on the case. “Repression has been accepted by the Supreme Court. The issue is the process of recovery of the memories.”

Helrich went on to say that Light’s memories were confirmed by place, season, furniture, and clothing, and by her prior medical history.

“You can’t create trauma in a lab,” he said. “How sophisticated would she have to be to sway these tests?”

“The bottom line is, science has changed in the 10 years since Hungerford,” Helrich said.

The hearing, which began last August, has been continued numerous times. This last day of testimony has been continued since September.

“There were a series of unfortunate events that have caused the continuation of this hearing to such a late date, and I’m sorry for that,” said Judge Nadeau, referring to the continuances on both sides as well as the medical leave of Bolton in November.

Rhianna Light said she is glad the hearing is over.

“It’s tiring,” she said. Even so, she said she is pleased overall with the process. “I’m confident the judge’s answer will be fair,” she said. “She’s been listening to both sides and doing her best, and whatever answer she gives, I know she took it all in. I can’t imagine her job right now.”

Light said that despite the fact that this ordeal began in 2001, she is still living a fairly normal life.

“If they decide against a trial, it’s OK with me,” she said. “I’ve given it everything I could. I would like it to go further, but it’s hard to say.”

Light also said that she wants people to know the truth.

“If this doesn’t go forward, it means we didn’t meet the criteria for repressed memories in New Hampshire, not that it didn’t happen,” she said. “It’s important to me that people know that.”

According to Light, in addition to her father being found guilty of physical assault against her, he was found guilty by the DCYF (Division for Children, Youth, and Families) on sexual assault charges in 2001.

“It stays in their computers. He isn’t registered as a sex offender, but it’s there,” she said.

Cotrupi maintains his client’s innocence.

“No one else in America does tests like the ones done in this case,” he said. “I believe the hearing went well because my expert doesn’t make his living testifying in court.”

“The judge has been extremely patient and attentive in this long, drawn-out hearing,” Cotrupi said.

Helrich said the state’s evidence went well with regard to testing.

“I think we addressed criteria not in the original Hungerford case,” he said. “The testing was relevant and we introduced competent evidence.”

Although Helrich said he can’t predict what the judge will rule, he said he has faith in the job his office did. “It’s an important case, not only for the people involved in this case, but for victims all over the state,” he said.

Light agrees. “It’s hard being a survivor of sexual abuse,” she said. “Everyone looks at you differently.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Exeter News-Letter, USA
Mar. 15, 2005
Liz Chretien
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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 16, 2005.
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