WE3ST CHESTER — The state Attorney General’s Office has decided to drop the prosecution of a Coatesville mother of an alleged child abuse victim who was 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.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Christopher Phillips presented Common Pleas Judge David Bortner, who was presiding over the case, with a “nolle prosse” order on Monday, withdrawing the perjury charge against the woman, who sat silently at the defense table next to her attorney, Amparito Arriaga of West Chester.
Phillips told Bortner that his office had decided not to proceed with the prosecution in its exercise of prosecutorial discretion and because of a concern with the “sufficiency of the evidence.” He did not elaborate, and declined to comment before leaving the courtroom.
“Is that it?” Asked Bortner, signaling an end to the matter that made headlines both at the time of the 2016 trial, and then in the past year after charges were leveled that former District Attorney Tom Hogan was using the case in an attempt to damage the reputation of current District Attorney Deborah Ryan, a political opponent. The two were facing off against one another in the race for the county’s top prosecutor’s position until Hogan abruptly withdrew his name from the ballot in July.
“From the Commonwealth’s perspective, it is,” answered Phillips. The Attorney General’s Office took over the case last month after Ryan said her office would not handle it any longer to avoid the appearance of bias. Ryan was the prosecutor in the underlying child abuse case, and was at one time sought as a witness in the matter.
Arriaga told Bortner that she had no objection to the withdrawal, and thanked Phillips’ supervisor, Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirsten Heine, for her attention to the matter and her “objective evaluation of the case. We are in agreement.”
The perjury case was to have gone to trial last summer, but after an attorney for Ryan complained that it was being used as a political tool against her candidacy Bortner decided to continue it until after the November election so as not to have the county courts used as “a theater of political contention.”
That alleged political bias in the case — those opposed to Ryan’s candidacy in November eventually 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.
Hogan's office, led by former Assistant District Attorney, denied here was any political motivation behind the prosecution.
Ryan, contacted after the proceeding before Bortner, declined comment.
Outside the courtroom, Arriaga said she and her client were satisfied with the resolution of the matter, to an extent.
“I feel good, but I feel bad at the same time,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld to protect the identity of her daughter. “There was no justice for (her daughter.)” The Daily Local news does not identify the alleged victims of sexual assault unless they give permission or speak publicly about their case.
The woman said her daughter continues in therapy, but is enrolled in school and living at home with her brothers and sisters. She is now 11.
The perjury case — one of very few such prosecution’s brought in the county — involved the 35-year-old Coatesville woman, who in 2015 accused a family friend of sexually assaulting her autistic, then 6-year-old daughter. The woman, however, admittedly lied at the man’s November 2016 trial about the extent of the relationship she had with him.
She faced felony perjury charges, as well as two counts of false swearing, a misdemeanor. If she was convicted of all three counts, she would have faced a maximum prison term of 5 1/2 to 11 years.
The Attorney General’s decision was criticized by the defense lawyer for the man accused of the molestation. Attorney Joel Benecke of West Chester had pushed for the woman to be prosecuted and suggested that his client had been falsely accused of having molested the girl as a way of the woman getting back at him for breaking off their relationship.
"It is extremely frustrating and disappointing that the Attorney General's office would seek to dismiss a case in which a person repeatedly committed the alleged crime and subsequently admitted to doing so,” Benecke said in an e-mail statement. “This was literally an open and shut case. The fact that (the mother) repeatedly perjured herself resulted in (his client, Mario) Serrano being jailed for nearly eighteen months for a crime he did not commit.”
“Allowing that type of behavior to occur without consequence is a slap in the face to those that expect the law to be enforced,” Benecke said. “It seems the Attorney General's office is taking a cue from our leaders in Washington by refusing to do the right thing and refusing to uphold the rule of law. Allowing politics to replace the proper administration of justice is a travesty and should not be tolerated by anyone."
According to the perjury arrest warrant filed against the woman in 2017 by Chester County Detective Keith Cowdright, in 2015 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 Benecke about the relationship, 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, the DA’s Office withdrew charges against Serrano, saying the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence to prove the case against him. It filed the perjury charges that same year.
The perjury charges against the woman do not involve her original accusations about the alleged sexual assault on her daughter. Some observers say she could have won a not guilty verdict in the case because she had recanted the lie about her past relationship with Serrano at his trial, thus purging herself of the crime.
The political implications Bortner vowed to guard against concern allegations made by Ryan that she was being called as a witness in the perjury trial specifically for the purpose of embarrassing her in the eyes of county voters, to the advantage of Hogan.
West Chester attorney Samuel Stretton, representing Ryan, told Bortner that he believed that Hogan wanted Ryan, who handled the original case involving the mother’s allegations, to be taken to task at the trial for a claim that she had not properly investigated the stories about the involvement between the woman and Serrano.
Hogan had told others, including Bortner himself, that he wanted Ryan’s testimony in court to obtain a finding of prosecutorial misconduct on her part, according to Stretton. He would then be able use that against her in his campaign for re-election, the noted local defense attorney suggested.
“That is wrong,” Stretton said. “They are not interested in finding the truth in this matter,” he said of the Hogan’s office. “They are interested in embarrassing her. He has a vendetta.”
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.