ST. ALBANS — Before the second day of Sen. Norm McAllister's sexual assault trial could get underway Thursday, the Franklin County state's attorney's office dropped the charges.
McAllister had faced two felony counts in which the state alleged he raped and sexually abused a young woman who worked on his farm and later as an intern for him at the Statehouse.
Deputy State's Attorney Diane Wheeler told reporters afterward that her decision was based on new information that came to light Wednesday night, after the accuser had spent hours on the stand. However, Wheeler would not elaborate, citing a second pending sexual assault trial against McAllister involving another woman.
Speaking to the press on the courthouse steps, McAllister's defense attorney Brooks McArthur praised Wheeler's decision as "courageous" and suggested the state's decision was the result of inconsistencies in this accuser's statements.
"It was clear that this complaining witness had significant credibility issues, and when the state listened to her testimony yesterday, reviewed that testimony overnight, they realized that they were going to have a very difficult time getting a verdict," McArthur said.
McAllister, standing behind his attorney, refused to take questions or make any comment. He did not appear to be a man with a new lease on life, and he listened with a blank look as McArthur answered reporters' questions.
The 21-year-old accuser's private attorney, Karen Shingler, said her client was upset and disappointed with the outcome but that she understood the state's attorney's decision.
Wednesday "was a very tough day for her," Shingler said.
The state dropped the charges "with prejudice," which means they cannot be refiled. However, McAllister still faces a second trial, which McArthur said will likely be in the fall. He was unable to say if it would take place before the November general election. McAllister is running for re-election.
"While it frankly matters very much to my client, the politics isn't something I've involved myself in," McArthur said.
Neither McAllister nor his attorney would say if he plans to start campaigning ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.
McAllister's accuser in the second case alleges the senator repeatedly sexually abused her over several years wile she was working on his farm and living in a trailer on his property.
The senator told Seven Days in October that he had sex with both his accusers. Asked Thursday if that was the case, McArthur dodged.
"We were prepared to address that issue at this trial, but we're not going to get into trial strategy," he said.
Since the October story in Seven Days, McAllister had told reporters he never had sex with his accuser in the case that was dismissed Thursday. Asked Thursday about the senator's inconsistent statements, McArthur said, "I think once all of the statements were put in context, the inconsistencies would have evaporated."
McArthur said his client felt vindicated but suggested that law enforcement and the state's attorney's office could have done more to challenge and investigate inconsistencies in the young woman's statements before going to trial.
"My client feels vindicated, but it isn't relief," McArthur said. "I mean, when you weigh just how serious the exposure is for these allegations and they're dismissed, I mean, frankly, I never thought it should get this far."
McArthur bemoaned what he suggested was a rush to judgment by Vermont's politicians that led to McAllister's suspension from the Senate in January. "I wish the folks in Montpelier would have waited until all the facts came to light," McArthur said.
However, lawmakers reached Thursday stood by the Senate's vote to suspend McAllister. In a move unprecedented in the upper chamber's two-century history, the Senate suspended McAllister, a Franklin County Republican, by a vote of 20 to 10.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said Thursday that he stood by the Senate's vote in January on McAllister's membership.
"The vote taken at that time was based on the fact that he had been charged," Benning said. "We had a potential for a lot of publicity surrounding things that were happening and that would have caused disruption in the Senate's work."
"To me it's separate and distinct from the criminal trial," Benning said.
Long before the Senate's vote, Benning said McAllister should resign and seek re-election. He also noted that charges are still pending against McAllister.
"The problem still exists," Benning said. "It deprives Franklin County of a full voice for their Senate representation."
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, also stood by the suspension.
"I think it was the right thing to do then," Campbell said Thursday, adding that he still believes it was the right decision.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, voted against McAllister's suspension in January. He said Thursday that he did so because he disagreed with the Senate's procedure.
"I don't want to rehash what was a Senate decision," Mullin said. "Who knows if that was the right decision or not. I guess we'll have to wait for everything to play out."
Mullin shared an apartment with McAllister in Montpelier where the accuser said McAllister had also assaulted her. Mullin was at the courthouse Thursday and had been expected to be called as a witness.
"What today does is leave a lot of questions," he said.
Kris Lukens, executive director of Voices Against Violence, a group that works with victims of domestic and sexual violence, said she believed McAllister's accuser, despite the inconsistencies highlighted by the senator's defense.
"None of this means the sexual assaults didn't take place. Technicalities happen in any kind of court case, and I think that's what we saw here," Lukens said.
Research shows that trauma, from sexual abuse or any other reason, physically changes the brain, Lukens said, and frequently those who have experienced trauma struggle to recall events in a linear fashion. That can be construed as inconsistency, she said.
"When we talk to victims, they don't often remember things right away. There's blanks. There's times where, 'Oh, wow, I didn't even think about that until much later, but I don't know if this happened before this or before that.' Again, it's the trauma," Lukens said.
"Juries and the public need to know that happens. It doesn't mean they're lying," she added.
During the trial, McAllister's defense attorneys said they would show his accuser's behavior was not consistent with being a sexual assault victim. They also expressed incredulity that she sought a job with McAllister in the Statehouse after allegedly being abused on his farm.
Lukens said it's not uncommon for sexual abuse to go unreported and that victims often cope by pretending it's not happening. In this particular case, McAllister was in a position of power over the young woman, she said.
"You know, here's a state senator. She's a young girl that's given the opportunity of a lifetime to work in the State House," Lukens said, explaining she was not surprised the young women took the job as McAllister's intern.
Explaining why few sexual assault allegations end up at trial, Lukens pointed to the difficulty of testifying publicly. She noted that the young woman in this case spent much of the abbreviated trial describing in wrenching detail how McAllister allegedly raped and sexually abused her.
The prospect of being discredited and facing negative publicity is why many victims choose not to come forward, Lukens added.
The state's attorney's decision set off a flurry of discussion on social media about the high-profile case and the allegations.
Some cheered McAllister's defense team, which included attorney Dave Williams.