WEST CHESTER >> In an unusual move, a Chester County criminal defense attorney has asked the District Attorney’s Office to file criminal charges against a woman whom the attorney accuses of committing perjury during court proceedings involving a child sexual abuse case.
Earlier this month, attorney Joel Benecke of West Chester filed two separate private criminal complaint requests at district courts in West Chester and Coatesville. Both contend that the woman, who is the mother of the alleged victim in a case involving one of Benecke’s clients, Mario Reyes Serrano, lied under oath about whether she had a previous sexual relationship with Serrano.
The woman’s name is being withheld by Digital First Media because of the nature of the charges against Serrano. Digital First Media does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse unless they give permission. The child involved is a 7-year-old girl who has autism.
Serrano, 37, of Coatesville, is charged with rape by force, rape of a mentally disabled person, statutory sexual assault, corruption of minors, aggravated indecent assault of a child, and related counts. He is being held in Chester County Prison on $750,000 bail.
The private complaints were filed on Dec. 9. No action — to either approve the charges and proceed against the woman, or disapprove them — had been taken on them as of Friday. In them, Benecke gives the dates and circumstances for which he alleges the woman lied under oath. He also states that, “she had been repeatedly lying about her relationship with Mario Serrano and that she had maintained a romantic/sexual relationship with Mario Serrano for several years.”
First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone declined to discuss the matter.
“We are actively reviewing the case,” he said recently in an email. “Because it is an ongoing investigation, we have no further comment at this time.”
Private criminal complaints are permitted under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. They are filed when police decline to press charges against an individual on their own, either because they did not witness the crime alleged or because of some other hesitancy in bringing the charges.
Local prosecutors review the private complaint and either accept or reject it. If the latter is the case, the person filing the complaint can appeal that decision to a Common Pleas judge. This is the first time in memory that a complaint has been filed against an alleged crime victim’s mother, and for perjury.
In this instance, the woman’s testimony against Serrano was a key element of the prosecution’s case, since the child herself was deemed incompetent to testify about what did not did not happen to her in July 2015, when the incident allegedly occurred. During Serrano’s trial before Judge James P. MacElree II in November, the woman testified she had seen her daughter on a couch in their home sitting on his lap with his shorts and underwear down, and her daughter naked from the waist down.
According to court observers, on both direct and cross examination the woman testified to the jury of seven women and five men that Serrano was only a “family friend” she would see at social evens and athletic games and that she never had an intimate relationship with him. At the conclusion of her testimony, she walked from the witness stand towards the rear of the courtroom and collapsed, dramatically, as the jury and the attorneys watched.
The woman was attended to by emergency personnel in the courtroom and then taken to Chester County Hospital for treatment. According to observers, at the hospital she confessed to a victim’s advocate that she had lied about the sexual history she shared with Serrano. She was interview ed by Chester County Detectives and told them about her lies.
The following day, as Deputy District Attorney Deborah Ryan’s last witness, the woman was recalled to the stand and told the jury about her sexual history with Serrano. She said they had been intimate for at least two years, and that she had stopped having sex with her husband at the time. She also said that she had become pregnant and did not know whether Serrano is the father of the child, a boy.
Serrano testified on his own behalf that he believed that the woman had concocted the story about his behavior with her daughter because he had told her that he was engaged to another woman, who was pregnant with his child. In his closing arguments to the jury, Benecke also suggested that the woman had made up the story as attempt to destroy Mr. Serrano’s credibility “because she did not want anyone to believe him when he said they had been romantically involved,” he said in an email.
The jury deliberated over two days before telling MacElree they were hopelessly deadlocked and could not reach a unanimous verdict. MacElree declared a mistrial, and Serrano was returned to county prison.
“Mr. Serrano steadfastly maintains his innocence as he has done since first hearing the allegations against him,” Benecke said in an email. “We think it is unfortunate that the office of the District Attorney has allowed itself to be fooled by the vindictive dishonesty of (the woman) Her blatant and repeated lies and her admissions to perjury are the only crimes involved in this matter.
“I have repeatedly told the police and the District Attorney about her lies since this matter began in August of 2015,” he added. “Unfortunately, they never saw fit to actually investigate those allegations. Now that those allegations have been proven through (the woman’s) own admissions, we hope the (District Attorney) sees them for what they are and that they perform their sworn duty to prosecute (her) and to dismiss the charges against Mr. Serrano.”
He said in his private complaints that the false testimony came not only on Nov. 16 during Serrano’s trial, but also on Oct 21 at a pre-trial proceeding before MacElree and at a preliminary hearing on Sept. 14, 2015. She described their relationship as a ‘family member.”
Benecke has noted with some irony that the prosecution had filed perjury an obstruction of justice charges against a Caln woman in 2015 in a murder case in which he represented the defendant, Deviane Scott. The woman, Brianna Scott, the defendant’s sister, had lied about whether she witnessed the murder or had been at the scene when it occurred.
Brianna Scott pleaded guilty in November 2015 to charges of perjury and obstruction and was sentenced to three to 23 months in county prison, plus probation.
The case against Serrano is still pending before MacElree. Ryan retired from the DA’s office at the end of November and the case is now assigned to Assistant District Attorney Emily Provencher, who is with the DA’s Child Abuse Unit.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.