Rape Victims Victimized Again in Court


Vermont enjoys a kind of postcard image: honest Yankee JTC tradesmen, perfect maple syrup, pink-cheeked skaters in a landscape by Grandma Moses. Given that wholesome picture, it may be difficult to imagine a criminal justice system that is altogether rotten, but that's the way it is in Vermont.

That observation comes from a reading of depositions and trial transcripts in the outrageous cases of Susan Sweetser and Sue Kremelberg. The two young women have been doubly raped, first by a criminal named Robert L. Percy and second by the system.

After serving as a truck driver in Vietnam and getting discharged for drug abuse, Percy returned to Vermont. In 1972 he raped a college student in Montpelier. His sentence was light -- only six to 12 years in prison -- but a public defender got him out in 1980.

A forensic psychiatrist, Dr. William Woodruff, warned at the time that Percy was a "very dangerous man" who probably would rape again. The warning went unheeded.

Shortly after his release, on Dec. 7, 1980, Percy abducted Susan Sweetser at gunpoint, beat her, choked her, forced her to engage in oral sex and raped her repeatedly. She was 21, three months pregnant with her first child.

Percy was arrested 10 days later, and released on bail of only $5,000. Vermont is friendly to felons.

On Jan. 16, 1981, while free on this token bail, Percy abducted Sue Kremelberg, taped her hands with electrician's tape, raped her again and again and drove her into Connecticut. After nine hours of terror she escaped at a traffic light in Brookfield. Police caught him.

Now we get to the rotten part.

Percy went on trial for the rape of Susan Sweetser in October 1981. His primary defense was insanity by reason of "post-Vietnam trauma." A jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to 16 to 20 years in prison. State-appointed defense lawyers appealed.

It wasn't until January 1986 that Vermont's Supreme Court reversed the conviction on a legal technicality having nothing whatever to do with the issue of guilt or innocence.

Two more years went by. Percy was tried again, found guilty again and this time sentenced to 18 to 20 years.

Two more years went by while the second conviction was appealed. Last October this second conviction was affirmed, but Percy's lawyers moved for reargument.

Not until May 15, 1991, just a few weeks ago, did the court get around to denying the motion. Thus ended the Sweetser case, 10 years and five months after it began.

The Kremelberg case followed the same maddening course of trial, conviction,appeal, reversal and retrial. Percy's second appeal is pending in the state supreme court, but oral argument is not expected until next year.

Under Vermont law, a public defender may demand endless, exhausting, emotionally draining depositions.

The two young women have been compelled to testify again and again to their brutal and degrading experience. Defense counsel have raised one legalistic objection after another.

At one point, having participated in the delays, defense lawyers moved for a dismissal for want of a speedy trial. The motion was denied.

You may read the appellate opinions from beginning to end, and find scarcely a single sentence in which the courts of Vermont have expressed concern for the two women.

A woman's right not to be raped is not a right that seems to be taken very seriously by the judges of Vermont.

Precisely the same thing may be said,of course, of Justices Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court. They are endlessly, coldly, impersonally obsessed with the rights of a criminal to the exclusion of the rights of the victims.

The people of Vermont cannot escape responsibility for the ordeal the victims have suffered.

Vermonters have elected a state legislature that is complaisantly agreeable to the demands of defense lawyers. Bills to reform bail procedures and to limit depositions have been tabled. The tightwad voters have refused to create an intermediate court of appeals, with the result that the state Supreme Court is hopelessly mired in a swamp of long-pending cases.

Susan Sweetser took a law degree in the midst of these proceedings. She has lobbied hard for reform of the system, but her efforts have gone nowhere.

"The worst part of this entire nightmare," she says,"is that the system which allowed my case to languish for 10 years and Sue's for 10-plus years is still in place, intact, virtually unchanged."

So it goes in Vermont, so it goes.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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