Bristol County DA’s Special Victims Unit brings abusers to justice

From The Herald News

By Brian Fraga

April 5, 2014

The jury was out, and Assistant District Attorney Silvia Rudman sat on a wooden bench outside the courtroom.
“It’s heart-breaking to see the impact child sex abuse has on the victims and their families,” Rudman said as she waited this past Wednesday for jurors in superior court to return their verdict in the trial of Roland Hill, a Taunton caretaker accused of physically abusing three children, one of them sexually.

The jury came back later that day with guilty verdicts on three counts of assault and battery, reckless endangerment of a child and a charge of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. Hill, who was acquitted on another indecent assault and battery charge, is scheduled to be sentenced April 14.

“It’s a real sense of reward when you can bring justice to the victims and families. It’s a form of justice that enables them to take back their life,” said Rudman, who was preparing for a Fall River sex abuse case that might reach trial on Monday.
The Hill trial was one of dozens of child abuse-related cases that Rudman, the chief of the Bristol County District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, will prosecute this year in superior court.

Rudman, 52, has been helping to investigate and prosecute cases of child abuse — physical and sexual — since she returned to the district attorney’s office in 2007 after practicing personal injury law for 14 years in a civil law firm. That line of work was more lucrative, and the hours were more flexible, but Rudman said she prefers to be a public servant.

“I very much enjoy it,” she said. “It’s more rewarding, and much more interesting. I like working with the team we have in SVU. It’s a hard-working unit with a phenomenal staff.”

In a given year, Rudman’s SVU will screen about 1,000 allegations of child, elder and disabled abuse, with 50 to 60 percent of those screenings resulting in criminal charges being brought against a defendant.

“If we believe (the abuse) occurred, and we have probable cause it occurred, we’re going to charge it, even if it’s a difficult uphill battle,” said Rudman, who usually carries about 30 cases at any given time. The majority of her cases relate to child abuse against boys and girls. Child abuse cases, especially those sexual in nature, are on the rise, in part because people have become more willing to report allegations, though Rudman noted the reported cases are still just the “tip of the iceberg” of what is happening in Bristol County.

Prosecuting, and securing convictions, in child sex abuse cases can be difficult because the cases often rely more on witness credibility as opposed to physical evidence. More often than not there is no physical evidence or DNA either due to delayed disclosures or the healing process that takes place among victims.

The majority of victims of sexual abuse disclose long after the abuse has occurred for multiple reasons, Rudman said. Jurors accustomed to CSI-type television shows, where forensic evidence is always available, may have an unrealistic expectation that there should be either DNA or physical evidence of some type when deciding reasonable doubt.

“It makes our job more difficult,” said Rudman, who also added that Massachusetts state criminal law is more conservative than most other jurisdictions, especially in sexual abuse cases.

In sexual assault cases, which often turn on credibility issues, the courts are restrictive on what they permit into evidence that may be considered suggestive. For example, in a sexual assault case, the fact that there has been an allegation of a sexual assault must be removed from the medical records.

“In a knife fight, the fact that there was a stabbing is just part of the medical record,” Rudman said.

The obstacles have not stopped the SVU from securing an 80 percent conviction rate. In seven years, Rudman has lost two trials, the last defeat in 2009.

“It’s difficult when you lose a case,” Rudman said. “But the majority of survivors who have testified have been able to testify against the accused, and that’s empowering for them. It strengthens them in a way and helps them to move on.”

Born in France, Rudman’s family moved around a lot as her father, an Italian literature professor, obtained university teaching jobs. She moved to the United States when she was a child, and became a U.S. citizen when she was a college student in 1983. Rudman is married, a mother of three, who enjoys gardening, traveling, cooking and reading.

Rudman prosecuted abuse cases from 1989 to 1992, during her first stint with the district attorney’s office. Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter recruited her to rejoin the office in 2007, and appointed her to the SVU.

“I like these cases because they are very victim-oriented,” Rudman said. “Part of it is they are the ultimate victims. They haven’t often spoken for themselves for years. Even if we can help a handful of people, empower them, and help them to move forward and heal, then it makes it all worth it.”

Original article: http://www.heraldnews.com/article/20140405/NEWS/140407285/0/SEARCH