WEST CHESTER — The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has taken over the prosecution of the Coatesville mother of an alleged child abuse victim who is accused of committing perjury during a 2016 trial, a case that grew to have political implications in last year’s race for Chester County District Attorney.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirsten Heine entered her appearance sometime last week after the case was referred to her office by new District Attorney Deb Ryan. Contacted Thursday, Heine declined comment on the case.
However, she did ask for a pre-trial hearing on a pair of motions before Judge David Bortner to be continued until next month. Bortner granted the continuance.
Ryan issued a statement explaining her reasons for asking the AG’s Office to assume responsibility for the prosecution, which began in 2017.
“This was referred to the Attorney General’s Office because I was one of the prosecutors who handled the underlying case where the alleged perjury occurred,” Ryan said Friday. “In order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or bias it is imperative that another agency assume the matter.”
The defense attorney representing the mother welcomed the change.
“I am pleased that this case has been transferred to the Attorney General,” said Amparito Arriaga of West Chester. “I am hopeful that a fresh set of eyes will bring a new perspective to this case.”
The perjury case was put off from a scheduled trial before Bortner last summer when an attorney for Ryan complained it was being used as a political tool against her candidacy. Ryan had been the lead prosecutor on the original child abuse case when she was head of the DA’s Child Abuse Unit.
That alleged political bias in the case — those opposed to Ryan’s candidacy in November used it in flyers sent to prospective voters just prior to Election Day to call her fitness for office into question — was behind a move by Arraiga to have the case dismissed, or transferred to the Attorney General. That motion was to be heard on Wednesday by Bortner, along with an unusual motion by the former prosecutor handling the perjury case, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Miller, to have Bortner either disqualified or voluntarily removed from hearing the case because of alleged bias against the prosecution.
In the motion filed on Dec. 20, Miller charged that Bortner had “engaged in repeated improper conduct in this matter, leading to both actual bias and an appearance of bis as it relates to his ability to preside fairly over this criminal case.” Miller cited several instances in which he alleged that Bortner attempted to force him into accepting a misdemeanor plea instead of the felony perjury charge now facing the woman.
“Judge Bortner appears to have forgotten that his role is to sit as an impartial judge, not as an advocate for a party to the proceedings,” an extraordinary accusation by a prosecutor against a judge who has sat on the county’s Common Pleas bench for 12 years.
Miller, who had been Ryan’s co-counsel on the child abuse trial in 2016, was let go by the District Attorney’s Office on Jan. 7, a day after Ryan took office.
It will now be up to Heine to decide whether to go forward with that motion or withdraw it. Heine also has the authority to proceed with the case to trial, or work out a non-trial disposition of the matter with Arriaga.
The conflict involves a 35-year-old Coatesville woman who in 2015 accused a family friend of sexually assaulting her autistic, then 4-year-old daughter, and who then admittedly lied at the man’s November 2016 trial about the extent of the relationship she had with him. The woman’s name is being withheld by the Daily Local News because of the nature of the initial charges against the man, which have since been dropped.
She faces felony perjury charges, as well as two counts of false swearing, a misdemeanor. If convicted of all three counts, she could face a maximum prison term of 5½ to 11 years.
The case was the last trial that Ryan, the former chief supervisor of the DA’s Child Abuse Unit, conducted before resigning from the office in early 2017.
According to the perjury arrest warrant filed against the woman in 2017 by Chester County Detective Keith Cowdright, the woman reported to police in Coatesville that she had witnessed a family friend, Mario Serrano, sexually assault her daughter while sitting on a sofa in her living room. Because the child is non-verbal, the woman was the sole witness who could testify to the alleged offense.
After Serrano was arrested in July 2015 and charged with child sexual abuse, he told authorities that he and the woman had a prior sexual relationship and that she was fabricating the story about his behavior as revenge for him ending their relationship. Later, at Serrano’s trial, the woman falsely testified that she had no prior romantic relationship with Serrano.
But following her cross-examination by Serrano’s attorney, Joel Benecke of West Chester, the woman admitted to a county investigator that she had indeed had a four- to five-year-long sexual relationship with him, and believed that he might be the father of one of her children. The following day, the woman retook the stand and acknowledged that she had not testified truthfully about their relationship. The trial ended in a mistrial after the jury told Judge James P. MacElree Ii that it could not reach a unanimous verdict.
In 2017, Miller withdrew charges against Serrano, saying the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence to prove the case against him. The perjury charges against the woman, however, do not involve her original accusations about the alleged sexual assault on her daughter.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.