Innocent until proven guilty - Navigating rape, sexual abuse cases in court
KINGMAN – Victims of sexual abuse are coming forward now more than ever, a testament to the efforts of lawmakers, victims-rights organizations and the victims themselves who have the courage to take the personal and sensitive matters to court. But as more of these cases come to light, the unfortunate reality is that some of them may be less than 100 percent truthful, or even altogether false.
That’s why Mohave County Public Defender Robin Puchek prefers to take those cases to trial.
“I like to fight,” Puchek said.
In the past two years, Puchek has been the defense attorney on 12 rape and or sexual abuse cases that have resulted in dismissals or acquittals. That includes nine consecutive acquittals. He is a member of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
He spoke about the sentencing climate surrounding sexual abuse and rape cases, calling relevant Arizona sentencing laws “Draconian.”
“A lot of them plea bargain because of the very severe penalties for child molestation, sexual conduct with a minor or even sexual assault, what you would call a rape case,” Puchek explained. “They’re Draconian, they’re really harsh sentences."
He said the Arizona Supreme Court in State v. Berger talked about the “triple whammy” of Arizona sex crime sentencing.
“The triple whammy is really long prison terms, stacking, in other words if convicted they would stack the sentences and they wouldn’t be concurrent as a matter of law, and you have to do 100 percent of any sentence imposed,” Puchek said.
David Niezwaag was charged with two counts of molestation of a child in April 2018. At a hearing March 13, both counts were dismissed as the prosecuting attorney said there was not enough evidence to move forward with prosecution, and that the alleged victim “could not recall the charged event.”
Niezwaag has proclaimed his innocence from the beginning, and said he was “devastated” when he found out about the allegations. Had he been convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of 48 years in prison.
“It’s been really hard,” Niezwaag said. “The toll it takes, it tears you apart.”
Suzanne Clarke, executive director of Kingman Aid to Abused People, says that false sexual abuse allegations don’t affect her organization’s work. She said those instances have a “minimal impact.” What impact there is, she said, is in regards to public opinion.
“I think social media plays a huge role in that,” she said. “A lot of times people believe what they read and don’t really do their due diligence to investigate truth and fact.”
Puchek and Krystal Rivero, investigator at the Mohave County Public Defender’s Office, also spoke about the role of social media in these cases.
“I think the second that anything hits the papers or any type of social media that someone’s been charged with this offense, the hatred that’s spewed over the internet … it’s almost unreal,” Rivero said.
Puchek recounted instances during jury selections where prospective jurors had personal accounts of sexual abuse, and noted he’s seen jurors be excused due to being on either side of the issue. Puchek said when it comes to these cases, he estimates an average of five to 15 people will presume the defendant is guilty just because he or she has been charged with the offenses.
Puchek also told of one case where a prospective juror asked to be excused because he himself had been falsely accused of inappropriately touching his daughter.
“Unless they confess, we always have pretty serious doubts about whether our guy is guilty,” Puchek said.
That’s why perhaps the most important job for Puchek and Rivero in defending a client charged with sexual offenses is information gathering.
“We try to gather as much impeachment evidence as we can to try and test out the victim’s story,” Puchek said.
But defense attorneys can run into trouble when they go before the judge.
“In the Niezwaag case, I would specifically state that Judge (Billy) Sipe was exceedingly fair to the defense, he’s always given me enough time to prepare for trial,” Puchek said, noting that’s not always the case. “The defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to effective council, and sometimes they don’t give me enough time, they rush it to trial. Sipe doesn’t do that, and I respect him for that.”
“Robin Puchek, Krystal, they totally changed my views about the public defender’s office,” Niezwaag said. “They were on my side from the beginning. They could tell I didn’t do this and they fought hard for me.”
While some accusations may be fabricated, there does remain a serious issue when it comes to sexual assault and rape. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been victimized either by an attempted rape or a “completed rape.” About one in 33 men have endured a similar experience.
Thankfully, more victims are coming forward.
“I think there’s more awareness that there are services and support that believe them, and that they have the right to come forward without judgment,” Clarke said. “Whatever comes out of it, that’s not our part … our part is to listen and advocate for that victim and survivor that comes forward.”
Kingman Aid to Abused People offers a full range of services including emergency shelter, case management, legal advocacy, therapy and more. The treatment center, 1770 Airway Ave., can be reached at 928-753-6222.
The Daily Miner reached out to Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith to get the prosecution’s views on the issue, but he did not respond to a request for comment by press time.