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Serving Time

[UPDATE (3/19/2010): A year after this story was published, and roughly seven years after the case against Donald Stettner began, a jury acquitted Stettner of the charges against him.] 

If the sex-abuse trial of former Pittsburgh Public Schools psychologist Donald Stettner starts as scheduled on March 4, it will come after a highly unusual six-year delay ... one in which Stettner, and his adopted son who leveled the charges of abuse, have been caught in a painful limbo.

Now 28 years old, Edward Stettner made his allegations in October 2002 to Allegheny County authorities and then at a preliminary court hearing on March 28, 2003. (To protect the anonymity of those who allege sex-abuse, "Edward" is a pseudonym: He currently uses a variation of his birth name.) He testified that he was abused from age 12 until he was 17 at the hands of Stettner and his biological mother, Rosalia Montes, almost until the couple divorced in 1998.

Charges against his mother were later dropped. His adoptive father, though, still faces charges of corruption of minors, endangering the welfare of children, criminal conspiracy, statutory rape, three counts of forcible compulsion and two counts of indecent assault.

Donald's lawyer has called all of Edward's accusations "baloney," and the defense will likely ask why he waited so long to make them. Not only did Edward wait four years to file a complaint, but he had pleaded with judges to permit Stettner to adopt him late in his 17th year. And after leaving home at age 18, he briefly moved back in with his father shortly before filing his charges.

To that, Edward could only explain that as a child, he was convinced the abuse "was my fault ... I made him do these things. It's a kid's natural desire to have a father who was proud of him.

"I guess I had this natural ability to live in the future instead of the here and now," he added. But, "One day, I was 22 and ... it was just time for me to come out of my coma."

Edward approached City Paper in 2005 to speak about the case, with the insistence that his interview not be published until the trial. After that interview, Common Pleas Judge Kevin Sasinoski -- who will preside over the non-jury trial -- ordered that neither side discuss facts about the case with the media.

"I have no fear when I go into that courtroom," predicted Edward in 2005, his then-24-year-old face seemingly almost too smooth to be an adult's. "What I'm doing ... is going to be a source of pride for me for the rest of my life. I really had to become a man through this. Ever since I came out of that denial, I always saw the time after this trial as some mystical place, some unimaginable place."

But those who've been through the system say that's a lot to hope for -- and that lengthy delays are one reason why. "If you're relying on the justice system to be one of the indicators of your healing process, that may be a set-up for disappointment," says Marlo Svidron, program director of client services for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape on the South Side.

But back in 2005, at least, Edward's "natural ability to live in the future," seemed to be serving him well. Sitting in the small East End apartment he shared with a roommate, he looked at one of the many personal papers he expected to see again in the courtroom. It was from so long ago it referred to him by his birth name. "This is who I will be," he said, "after this trial."

"It's been an excruciating six years," says Thomas Pavlinic, one of Donald Stettner's attorneys. "It's been a ballbreaker of a case." In 35 years of practicing law, he says, "I've never been involved in a case that dragged out for six years."

Pavlinic, of Annapolis, Md., specializes in defending against child sex-abuse accusations. He joins Stettner's other lawyer, Tim Lucas of Erie, who did not return calls for comment.

The allegations themselves are painful just to listen to -- even in the clinical language forced on Edward in a 2003 preliminary hearing:

"Donald Stettner, under the guise of punishment, would have sex with me in my bedroom, his bedroom ..." Edward said in the municipal courtroom. "He would make me lay down on my back and tell me to lube myself up. Then he would climb over me and insert his penis into my anus. After he would ejaculate ... then he would ask me if it hurts."

What warranted such punishment? the prosecution asked.

"There were three criteria," Edward testified. "I would either have to have lied to him, been a sneak or [done] something to him."

The impact of those allegations have been devastating for Donald Stettner, his attorneys contend. In motions filed with the court, they claim that Pittsburgh Police Commander Gwen Elliot, since deceased, went on television "urging other 'victims' to come forward" if they had allegations of abuse by Stettner. Indeed, soon after Edward's charges made the news, Donald was charged twice more: once with improperly touching his pre-adoptive daughter, and once with molesting a then-5-year-old Colfax Elementary School student he had seen as a psychologist. The latter case was dismissed, while the other is also still wending its way through the justice system. He was also suspended from his city schools post, and KDKA-TV revealed that one of his doctoral degrees had come from a diploma mill.

It's unclear what Stettner has been doing since then. When approached by City Paper in 2003, he sent word through a friend that he would not be able to speak to the media before his trial.

Pavlinic blames the prosecution for the delay, and in August 2005 the defense team filed a motion "for sanctions due to a persistent pattern of prosecutorial misconduct." Among other things, they claimed lead prosecutor Laura A. Ditka -- who heads the Child Abuse Unit in the district attorney's office -- would be prejudiced against Stettner. In other trials, they noted, Stettner had been hired by defense attorneys as a "psychologist and forensic medical psychotherapist" testifying in opposition to the state.

Ditka said she could not comment on a pending case. But as a memorandum she filed in the three-foot-thick Stettner file points out, the defense team "has filed approximately 10 assorted motions asserting numerous violations and seeking various forms of relief."

Those motions have included various efforts to dismiss charges, along with one effort to move the trial from Allegheny County due to "pre-trial publicity" (citing an inch-thick collection of transcripts from TV-station Web sites as well as print articles, including a previous CP piece); to have the case dismissed; to quash a subpoena; and, twice within three days, to postpone the proceedings.

Most of the motions have been denied, and none have succeeded in removing the charges, the prosecutor or the trial itself. But they have created extraordinary delays. One pre-trial motion, for example, took two years to be decided -- with a ruling by the state's Superior Court in 2007 that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to review in 2008.

The defense had originally succeeded in having two pieces of evidence excluded from the trial: any past protection-from-abuse orders taken out against Donald Stettner (there was at least one, filed by Montes in 1998 and later dismissed) and evidence that Donald had tried to give Edward a check for $25,000 and a promise of $25,000 more. A handwritten note accompanying the $25,000 check was signed by Edward's siblings -- Donald's two natural children, a daughter then 14 and a son then 8. The envelope was marked "Very Important ... Dad says he's sorry. He loves you." Such money is "not blackmail," the note said, and concluded "We want you to take the 5th Amendment on 3/28 [2003], only out of love for us, not money."

One defense motion claimed the money was only intended by Donald to help Edward start a limousine business. But the Superior Court agreed with prosecutors that the offer "indicated [Donald Stettner's] consciousness of guilt," and reversed the decision to exclude either the note or the PFAs.

Another cause of delay, though, has been defense motions surrounding Edward Stettner's own legal troubles.

Donald Stettner's attorneys have claimed that Edward's allegations were "sparked by serious parent/adopted-child issues over Edward's criminal and anti-social behavior." When Edward made his allegations, the motion alleges, he was using drugs, not attending his college classes, being withdrawn from Donald's financial support and being evicted from Donald's residence.

Edward "has a long history of psychiatric illness and has had numerous inpatient and outpatient admissions," a defense motion claims.

The defense also claims that Edward has repeatedly accused others of abusing him, and that he originally accused Donald of also abusing his natural children, along with a young girl Donald was then in the process of adopting, as well as six other apparently unrelated individuals of unstated ages. Stettner's attorneys also have filed a sworn statement from Donald's sister, who says Edward recanted his accusations to his aunt on Jan. 23, 2003 -- two months before he repeated them at the preliminary hearing.

In yet another motion, the defense team also claims there was "favorable treatment, promises or inducements made [to Edward] to secure his testimony" -- specifically that "he received favorable and preferential treatment" in resolving criminal charges of his own. Sasinoski ruled that there was "no evidence" for this claim.

County criminal records show that, in September 2002, Edward was charged with simple assault, harassment and making terroristic threats after an incident in Springdale Borough. His then-fiancée had accused him of choking and pushing her during an argument, as well as threatening to kill her. (She could not be found to be subpoenaed, and the charges were dropped.)

He got one year of probation for another 2002 incident -- stealing $265.53 of women's clothing from a Ross Township J.C. Penney's with a female companion. He spent a month in jail for missing one of the hearings in this case.

The jail time in September 2002, Edward told CP, "was right directly at the point that I was reporting" Donald to the police. "I was scared shitless. Did I fall down a dark hole? Yes" -- but not far enough to concoct outrageous charges for revenge, he adds. He said he was "reborn" in jail.

The next year, though, he pled guilty to disorderly conduct and other charges stemming from an incident in which Brentwood police received a call about a reckless driver who ignored a stop sign. When police approached him, according to the police report, he grazed an officer with his vehicle when he refused to stop, drove a few blocks away, parked and ran.

"I basically lost faith in life, in the way of the world," Edward said of his multiple arrests.

Donald Stettner, meanwhile, remained out of jail on bond after his arrest. Edward spotted him once in Squirrel Hill in 2003. "My mind sees him before I do. I used to drive myself crazy: Is anybody going to believe me?"

Then again, he says, "Can you picture somebody sick enough to make this stuff up?"

"Ordinarily, the U.S. Constitution requires that criminal trials be 'speedy,'" notes University of Pittsburgh law professor John M. Burkoff, an expert in criminal procedure in Pennsylvania. "A six-year delay between charging and trial is highly unusual.

"But saying it's 'unusual' is not the same thing as saying it's unlawful or suspicious," he cautions. "There are any number of legitimate and lawful reasons why a criminal prosecution might be delayed or prolonged," such as the two-year court appeal. "Where part of the reason for the delay is to correct an erroneous lower-court ruling prior to trial -- as in this case -- then surely it is better and more efficient to take care of a problem like that before rather than after trial."

A long delay in general can have mixed effects, Burkoff adds. "The longer the delay, the more witnesses' memories may fade. And the longer the delay, the less likely any witnesses' mistaken impressions will be corrected. But a long delay does, in contrast, increase the possibility that new evidence will be unearthed in the interim."

Of course, in most sex-abuse allegations there are rarely witnesses apart from the alleged victim and perpetrator. And while delays in criminal cases are "the rule, rather than the exception," says Tracey Provident, an associate director of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty, a six-year delay is rare indeed. Hearing about it, Provident exclaims, "Wow. We often prepare victims that their case won't go to trial for a year." A half-dozen years of waiting "is probably the far end of postponements."

And "the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is for the victim," Provident adds. "Often victims will get discouraged. You can't blame them. Sometimes postponements make victims feel unnoticed, that the system doesn't care about them."

Marlo Svidron, of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, cautions against victims of sex abuse trying to take comfort from the prospect of a courtroom verdict.

Her agency, like Provident's, provides victims with a guide to navigating court procedures and even sends advocates to accompany them to trial. "People feel like having their day in court ... can be one more validator that what happened to me was real, and it was a crime," reports Svidron. But often, she says, that's not how it turns out.

For one thing, there might not be a guilty verdict. And delays in the case can cause the victim further pain. "One of the ways that the brain processes trauma is that trauma is considered a timeless memory," she says. "Every time you're faced with having to recount the events that happened to you ... many times the victims can have an experience as if the trauma were happening all over again."

Pitt's Burkoff knows of no statistic gauging how many times alleged victims simply give up waiting for a trial after pressing charges. "But victims are just like other witnesses," he notes. "They move, they die, they forget, they change. They move on. Sometimes they will tire of the whole thing. But sometimes the long delay simply sharpens their desire for 'justice.'"

The delays, Edward concluded, have also been "a blessing in disguise. It's actually allowed me time to become stronger, to get further and further away from the realities [Donald] raised me in, and allowed me to get closer to God. Whereas before I would go down there [to the trial] and panic, now I'll be going down there, not calm, but I'll have faith that everything will work out as it should."

He said he now saw his childhood through the lens of the therapy he has undergone and the spirituality he has found: "Every day is almost a total new experience for me."

The defense at Donald Stettner's trial will certainly introduce a letter Edward wrote in 1998 to Court of Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Craig supporting his adoption. "I can vouch personally to the fact," the letter says at one point, "that ... Don has never struck, hit, aggressively held, beat, slap[ped], displayed inappropriate sexual behaviors, cussed extensively around us, or in any way emotionally, physically, sexually or verbally abused" him or his younger brother and sister.

Edward labeled himself "a robot" for writing that letter. Paging through it, he shook his head. Such an elaborate defense of his father "proves to me that there was something very wrong," he asserted.

He and his adoptive father will soon learn if Sasinoski is convinced as well. Eleven years after the alleged abuse ended, and more than six years after charges were filed, the trial may actually start on March 4.

"We'll be there," says Thomas Pavlinic, one of Donald's lawyers. Pavlinic is concerned about the lasting stain of Edward's allegations on the elder Stettner. His Web site,, warns that such defendants always face special challenges.

"Teen-agers are caught between a child's and an adult's world," says a section titled, "When Teens Accuse." Teens, the site contends, "are mature enough to understand that their words and actions can be persuasive, but do not have a full appreciation of the harm they may cause to others. Emboldened by this power, they sometimes make false accusations of sexual abuse in a moment of anger, out of spite or for retribution for some perceived wrong. [...] What teens often don't understand is that false accusations of sex abuse can cause enormous and permanent harm. A false accusation can ... result in a long prison sentence and a lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender. Once spoken, the allegations cannot be taken back."

"If you have been falsely accused of committing a child sex crime, you know that the deck seems stacked against you," another section advises. "There are many who will believe the lies. Your relationships with friends and family members may never be the same. If you are convicted, your debt to society may never be paid."

Speaking to CP, Pavlinic says he does not think the protracted delay "made any difference for the evidence, but it's made a difference in Don's life." Stettner, he says, has had to contend with "the hysteria that attaches to somebody that gets accused of child abuse. Right away the public piles on: 'He must be a bad man. He is a fucking pervert.' The prejudice that people suffer as a result of these accusations ... People like Stettner, his whole life is ruined."

Edward Stettner, meanwhile, says his has barely begun. "My life is waiting."

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