ST. ALBANS — A prosecutor and the defense attorney for former state Sen. Norm McAllister presented jurors with opposing versions of a relationship that is the basis for sexual assault and prostitution charges being heard at trial this week.
A Franklin County woman responded to a Craigslist ad in 2012 posted by the former Republican lawmaker looking for a farmhand to work with goats on his Highgate property.
The woman was about to become homeless, and the Department for Children and Families had taken her children, said Deputy State’s Attorney John Lavoie in his opening statement. To have any hope of getting them back, she needed a place to live, he said.
Lavoie told jurors it quickly became clear McAllister expected sex from the woman as part of the job, which came with a place to live: a trailer on McAllister’s farm.
“Power and control, that is what rape is about. That is what the evidence will show. Rape is not about sex. It’s about the rapist using sex to exercise power and control,” Lavoie said.
McAllister is accused of coercing the women into a relationship that amounted to prostitution — the basis for one of three charges he faces. Another prostitution charge stems from an incident where McAllister allegedly arranged for her to have sex with another man who paid McAllister in order to cover utility payments on the trailer.
The two misdemeanor prostitution charges carry up to a year in prison each.
The most serious charge, felony sexual assault, stems from a specific incident where Lavoie said McAllister put his fist in the woman’s vagina against her will. That charge carries three years to life in prison.
McAllister’s defense attorney Robert Katims countered that the woman made accusations against the former lawmaker to preserve her relationship with an abusive ex-husband, whom Katims said she had previously gone to great lengths to protect — even possibly lying under oath in a domestic violence case.
“The evidence will show that [the woman] feared her [ex-husband]. She feared him and she loved him,” Katims said. “There’s no way [the woman] was going to admit a consensual relationship to [her ex-husband].”
But Katims said the evidence would show McAllister and the woman “engaged in scores of consensual sexual encounters, and it will show that they had problems and complexities like many people.”
Lavoie played a more than 30 minute recording made by state police of a conversation between McAllister and his accuser. In it they discussed their relationship, their past arrangement to trade sex for rent, and the incident where the woman may have been engaged in prostitution with another man.
They also discuss the alleged sexual assault and another incident where the two had anal sex. In the recording the woman says both incidents were painful and left her scared and upset. During the alleged assault, she says, she was crying and asked him to stop.
“I truly didn’t hear you say stop, or please don’t or whatever,” McAllister can be heard to say.
At one point when McAllister and his accuser are discussing the sex acts that caused her pain, the former legislator says, “I know I was basically forcing you to do something you didn’t want to do.”
Earlier in the conversation the woman tells McAllister that, “I think I started to end up feeling kind of like your prostitute.”
McAllister responds, “And, well, that’s what it turned into, truly.”
After playing the recording, Lavoie told jurors they would likely hear evidence that, in the context of a domestic violence case, the woman either made a false accusation against her ex-husband or that after making the accusation she testified falsely.
“When you’re thinking about whether or not you should believe [the accuser], I want you to keep this recording in mind,” he said.
Katims told jurors to remember that the recording starts with McAllister saying he’s going to need to start collecting rent from the woman, and that he indicates he was looking to get away from their sexual relationship.
The recording “in content and tone” shows that McAllister was not sexually assaulting anyone, Katims said.
The trial that got underway Wednesday is the second of two sexual assault trials for McAllister. The first involved a woman who worked as an intern in Montpelier for McAllister. That trial began last summer, but prosecutors dropped that case after it emerged that the woman had lied about a detail of her relationship with another person who worked on McAllister’s farm.
The allegations of sexual assault led to McAllister’s arrest at the Statehouse in 2015 and spelled the end of his political career.
A jury of six men and six women, plus two male alternates, was selected Wednesday to decide the former lawmaker’s fate after a laborious 2½-day process.
Seating jurors was especially difficult because of exhaustive media coverage over the two-plus years that the case has dragged on. Other prospective jurors knew people involved or had experiences that may have affected their ability to be impartial.
At one point during Lavoie’s opening statement, Judge Martin Maley interrupted the veteran prosecutor to tell a juror to stop taking notes and to ask where the jurors had gotten note pads. A sheriff’s deputy escorting the jury said the pads were by the entrance and that he had said jurors could take them.
The woman taking notes said she had a poor memory and taking notes would help her. Maley eventually relented but read statutory guidance to jurors on note taking and asked them not to focus on their notes to the exclusion of the testimony and evidence.
Maley then apologized to Lavoie for interrupting. “I know that’s one of the worst things that can happen to an attorney when he or she is giving an opening statement,” the judge said.