Copper Mountain Resort sex assault trial ends in jury stalemate
April 4, 2017
A sexual assault case from 2014 ended with a hung jury on Monday, demonstrating the difficulty of adjudicating complex sex assault cases — particularly when alcohol is involved. Prosecutors will decide whether or not to re-try the case at a status conference scheduled for next week.
The trial largely centered on whether or not the accuser was capable of giving consent during a sexual encounter because she was highly intoxicated on the night of the alleged assault.
"Consent is the touchstone of all of these issues, but it gets more complicated when people are intoxicated," District Attorney Bruce Brown said. "That's why these cases become very difficult to either prosecute or defend."
Prosecutors said that the defendant, 38-year-old Charles Rochon, had sex with the accuser when she was barely conscious and unable to give consent. The defense countered that Rochon had no reason to believe the encounter wasn't consensual because his accuser never said "no."
The events leading up to the encounter are unclear because the accuser couldn't remember anything until she woke up moments before the assault allegedly occurred.
The case touched upon the debate between implied versus affirmative consent. The latter standard, which has gained wider currency on college campuses but not in criminal proceedings, holds that both parties must communicate desire to engage in sex — and that lack of resistance doesn't demonstrate consent.
Critics of that standard argue that it places an undue burden on the accused, a line of argument by Rochon's attorneys during trial.
"She never says no, she never says stop, never physically indicates there is no consent," defense attorney Thea Reiff said. "He is not a mind reader. You have to know when somebody is saying 'no.' The big problem in this case is that there is no evidence of that."
The prosecution, on the other hand, argued that because of the accuser's level of intoxication, she wasn't capable of giving consent at all.
Neither argument ultimately prevailed with jurors, who acquitted Rochon for evidence tampering but remained deadlocked on the unlawful sexual contact charges at the center of the case.
According to an arrest affidavit, the accuser was out drinking with friends on the night of December 29, 2014, but eventually blacked out and woke up in a strange room.
She told police that some of her clothes had been removed and that a sleeping bag was covering her face. She was then sexually assaulted, she said, and fled the room when the defendant went to the bathroom.
During the night, she had been attempting to get into her room but was on the wrong floor, and her key broke off in the lock. The occupants of that room said they saw Rochon, who was a maintenance worker at the time, contact the accuser and try to help her.
Prosecutors alleged that Rochon eventually took her to his room down the hall and then assaulted her in the morning.
"He thinks she wants to have sex?" prosecutor Lisa Hunt asked the jury during closing arguments. "She can't even carry on a conversation. He works for Copper Mountain, he could have called security and found out her room number. Instead, he takes her to his room, a place she has never been. The thing she wakes up to is being raped."
Very little physical evidence was presented at trial. The prosecution's case hinged heavily on the accuser's account, which the defense assailed for its inconsistencies and alcohol-induced lapses.
During her testimony, the accuser was unable to answer many of the defense's questions because she couldn't remember the full sequence of events, Reiff said in closing.
"Everything in this case points to a man who thought what he was doing that morning was understood to be consensual, was understood to be wanted," Reiff said. "This was a very different experience for these two people — no doubt about that. But what (the accuser) and her mother said was rape is not the legal definition of rape."
The defense also sought to impugn the accuser's motives, characterizing the allegations as a way for her to escape personal responsibility for getting drunk the night before.
In the accuser's account to police, she said that she "shut down" right before the encounter and pretended to be asleep because she wasn't aware of where she was. The sleeping bag covered her face throughout the encounter, during which she "remained still," according to the affidavit.
"Not talking and laying still is not consenting," Hunt said. "He didn't ask her, didn't know she was awake, didn't even talk to her, couldn't even see her face."
The defense, however, countered that while the encounter may have been unwanted by the accuser, it was her responsibility to communicate that.
"There is no requirement that you get some kind of verbal exchange every time sexual contact is initiated," Reiff countered. "No means no, but you've got to say it."