We think of facts as being the absolute truth, but are they always? Just look at the political climate we’re in, flooded with “alternative facts,” and cries of “fake news.” This book examines a trial that was based solely on statements made by various parties in the trial (no DNA, no other forensic evidence, and no actual witnesses, even though numerous people were in proximity to the alleged incidents). The incidents in the case either happened or didn’t happen in Central Texas between the autumn of 2001 and the spring of 2004.
In April 2004, after hearing a speech at her school, Hanna Penderfield came forward and told the speaker she had been sexually molested during the previous three years. There is some dispute, though, as to whether she named Steve Sirois, my brother, as her molester at that time. The speaker encouraged her to do two things. First, to tell her mother and then report it to the authorities. Hanna told her mother, Darla Belisle, and they called the sheriff’s office, making an official statement to them the next morning. Charges were filed based on that statement. Steve was brought in to give a statement himself. A couple of months later a grand jury was held, and Steve was indicted and arrested. The trials didn’t take place until the summer of 2006.
There were two trials. The first one ended in a mistrial, with the jury unable to reach a verdict. The second trial, a month later, ended in a conviction on one of three counts. The first count was for aggravated sexual assault of a child. That charge held a date of “on or about September 1, 2001.” The other two charges were for sexual assault of a child, and the dates for both of those charges were “on or about February 14, 2004.” Steve was acquitted of the two charges alleged to have happened in 2004, but convicted of the one charge that was alleged to have happened in 2001. Hanna, in September of 2001, was twelve, and was fourteen (almost fifteen) on February 14, 2004. Steve was 41 at the beginning of the alleged time period, and 43 on the last alleged date (in February 2004).
Those are things that we can actually verify, the basic facts of the case. There was no physical evidence for the time period between September of 2001 and February of 2004. No DNA, no stains on a blue dress, no sex tapes from hidden cameras. The trial was based on a few simple items: Hanna’s testimony, Steve’s denials, a doctor’s report done months after the last alleged incident, and the accounts of various witnesses, none of whom could testify that they had seen any inappropriate behavior on Steve’s part.
The book, Aggravated, is going to try to prove that a purported fact is not a fact just because it has been voiced, and that it can sometimes be proven to be a lie even without physical evidence. The book compares the two trials, interviews, documents, and data, to show that statements that were originally held to be true very likely weren’t.
Since (from the very beginning) this was a trial that had no physical evidence, it was always about the truthfulness of the people on the witness stand. Sometimes truthfulness can be proven through corroboration, but other times a jury is forced to make their decision based on who they believe.
My hope is, that after reading this book, you will believe differently than some members of the jury did.
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