A judge declared a mistrial in a hard-fought and emotional child rape trial that was complicated by COVID-19 and interrupted by a power outage.
Island County Superior Court Alan Hancock reluctantly made the decision Monday afternoon after the jurors reported that they were hopelessly deadlocked after deliberating for four days.
The jurors were 7-to-5 in favor of acquittal, according to attorney Christon Skinner.
Charles Ringer Jr. was on trial for child rape in the second and third degrees; the counts were charged as domestic-violence crimes and included allegations of aggravating circumstances.
Prosecutors are discussing their next steps and haven’t made a decision on a possible retrial, according to Prosecutor Greg Banks.
Ringer’s stepdaughter, who is now 20 years old, accused him of raping her hundreds of times at his North Whidbey home and his condominiums in Bangkok, Thailand, when she was in the fifth to ninth grade. She testified at length about the sexual abuse in graphic detail and about two suicide attempts, the second of which landed her in a secure psychiatric ward at Children’s Hospital in Seattle.
The Whidbey News-Times is not naming the woman because she allegedly was a victim of sexual abuse.
Ringer testified in his defense, explaining that he was retired after a career as a Navy officer who taught pilots, a comptroller at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and a commercial airline pilot. He described how he met and married the victim’s mother and then largely became the girl’s caregiver for years as her mother was constantly absent because of her job as a flight attendant. He testified that he taught her English, enrolled her in school, signed her up for activities and lessons, took her to appointments and even walked her to the school bus each morning.
When repeatedly asked by his attorney whether he had raped his stepdaughter, he responded “heavens no” and “absolutely not.”
“I never had any sexual contact with her, nor would I ever,” he said.
Precautions related to COVID-19 complicated the trial, which began with jury selection Nov. 3. The jurors were removed from the witnesses and attorneys as they sat in the gallery instead of the jury box in order to maintain social distancing. Everyone in the courtroom wore masks, except the witness and attorneys were allowed to remove them while speaking. Plexiglass shields protected the witness stand and court employees seated next to the judge.
The trial was interrupted by the Veterans Day holiday, a pre-arranged day off and an island-wide power outage.
In closing arguments, Chief Criminal Prosecutor Eric Ohme described the young woman as a credible witness who had no reason to invent a “diabolical plan” and go through the harrowing experience that awaits sexual abuse victims in court. He scoffed at the defense’s suggestion that she was motivated by revenge because Ringer had threatened to take away her cell phone or made her do homework more than five years ago.
“It took courage and grit for (the girl) to sit on the witness stand in the case and tell her secrets,” he said. “Her true secrets.”
Ohme argued that Ringer’s testimony was not credible. Ringer testified that he didn’t expect people to follow orders even though he was a Navy officer for years. He also testified that moving the family to his house was his wife’s suggestion, but Ohme introduced a legal document in which Ringer stated that it was his idea.
The defense emphasized how the alleged victim’s mother was largely absent from her life, which Ohme did not dispute. He said she definitely was not “the mother of the year.”
“She’s really the perfect wife for someone who wants to sexually abuse her daughter,” he said.
Ringer was represented by Skinner, a longtime Oak Harbor attorney who was elected as superior court judge in November, and Mount Vernon attorney Mari Doerner. The duo poked holes in the prosecutor’s case from different directions.
They were aggressive in cross examining the alleged victim as well as Detective Chris Peabody with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.
The young woman repeatedly became emotional when Doerner questioned the veracity of her testimony; she became so upset she wasn’t able to continue testifying on two different occasions.
Skinner questioned Peabody, focusing on what the defense maintained were deficiencies in the investigation. Skinner asked him why the detective didn’t contact the victim until more than two weeks after her disclosure in 2015, why he didn’t look for evidence or have the girl get a medical exam and why the case was stalled for years. Peabody testified that the girl and her mother asked that he not go forward with the case, but he re-contacted them and resumed the investigation a few years later after hearing about the girl’s attempted suicide.
Skinner contended that the decision to investigate and prosecute a crime — especially in domestic violence cases — isn’t up to the victim, but detectives and prosecutors make the decision and can go forward without victim consent.
Peabody, however, said that wasn’t the case in sex crimes. Investigators and prosecutors, he said, will not force a rape victim to testify.
The two sides had dueling expert witnesses. A psychiatrist from Children’s Hospital testified for the prosecution, explaining that the young woman had disclosed sexual abuse and had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. A forensic psychologist testified for the defense, explaining the importance of following correct protocols when interviewing children and claiming that Peabody and a deputy didn’t follow any protocol whatsoever.
In her closing arguments, Doerner pointed to parts of the alleged victim’s testimony that she said didn’t make sense, like the fact that she didn’t remember whether she was wearing shoes on the night that she ran away from Ringer’s home and or that she said she met a girl who was bicycling in the dark.
Although the defense attorneys emphasized that the alleged victim claimed that she had been raped nearly every day for years, Doerner questioned why she didn’t remember the details of specific instances of sexual abuse or hadn’t disclosed every instance previously.
Doerner claimed that the woman said 93 times in her testimony that she didn’t remember or recall a detail.
Doerney also focused on the alleged victim’s troubled relationship with her mother. She spoke about how the woman was largely absent from her daughter’s life, even getting an apartment in Minneapolis while her daughter was living with Ringer on Whidbey Island.
Doerner emphasized her mother left the country after taking her daughter to Children’s Hospital following a suicide attempt and only returned when it was time to bring her home, even trying to take her daughter before the medical professionals felt it was safe and appropriate.
Doerner also pointed out that the woman had allegedly assaulted her daughter in a roadside altercation after being interviewed by Peabody.
“She felt abandoned by her mother,” Doerner said. “She felt neglected. She felt her mother wouldn’t even care if she wasn’t alive.”
Doerner argued that the young woman’s troubled relationship with her mother was key to her emotional and mental health crises.
“This is a case of fractured relationships,” Doerner said, citing additional “fractured relationships” with an older sister she barely knew, a biological father she didn’t know at all and a beloved nanny she had to leave in Thailand.
“So is it a surprise that she had a fractured relationship with Mr. Ringer?” she asked.