Alex Kelly Rape Trials: 1996-97

views updated

Alex Kelly Rape Trials: 1996-97

Defendant Alex Kelly
Crime Charged: Sexual assault, kidnapping (first trial only)
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas P. Puccio, Hope Seeley
Chief Prosecutor: Bruce P. Huddock
Judges: First trial: Martin L. Nigro; Second trial: Kevin Tierney
Place: Stamford, Connecticut
Dates of Trials: October 15-November 12, 1996; April 9-June 12, 1997
Verdicts: First trial: Mistrial; Second trial: Guilty
Sentence: 20 years imprisonment, suspended after 16 years

SIGNIFICANCE: The Alex Kelly case was notorious for the lurid nature of the crime and public debate over the prosecution of a socially privileged defendant, who had evaded punishment for his crime with the help of his wealthy parents.

On the night of February 10, 1986, Alex Kelly offered 16-year-old Adrienne Bak a ride home from a party in Darien, Connecticut. The next day, Bak told police that Kelly had raped her. Eleven years would pass before the charge was weighed by a jury.

Three days after the Darien incident, while the shaken Bak family was mulling over the consequences of pressing charges, police received a complaint from a 17-year-old girl in nearby Stamford, who accused Kelly of raping and sodomizing her. Kelly was arrested and charged with sexual assault and kidnapping. Some residents of the wealthy suburbs were shocked by the arrest. Darien police, however, found the accusations believable. They also knew of the high school athlete's drug use and had previously arrested him for burglary. Kelly was scheduled to be tried for both alleged rapes simultaneously on February 16, 1987. Three days before his court date, however, he fled to Europe and disappeared.

Arrested After Eight-Year Vacation

Kelly's flight was an expensive decision for his parents, who forfeited a $200,000 bond they had posted for him. They also funneled money to their fugitive son during the next eight years, which he spent skiing and hang-gliding at expensive resorts. In January 1995, Kelly surrendered to Swiss authorities, saying that he wanted to put the accusations in front of a jury to clear his name. Prosecutors believed instead that he knew he was finally about to be arrested.

Although the original sexual assault and kidnapping charges against Kelly remained unchanged, the courts now agreed to weigh the two alleged incidents in separate trials. Jury selection in the Darien case began on October 1, 1996. When testimony began two weeks later, Adrienne Bak Ortolano (she had married after high school) recalled the night she accepted a ride from Kelly. She had reluctantly accepted his repeated offers in order to be home before an 11 p.m. curfew imposed by her parents. Kelly, she said, drove past her house to a dark dead end and pushed her into the back of the Jeep, choking her with both hands. Ortolano tearfully described how the amateur wrestler pinned her in the back of the vehicle and threatened to kill her if she did not stop screaming. After raping her, Kelly drove the bleeding girl home, repeatedly saying he would kill her if she revealed what he had done.

Kelly's attorney, Thomas Puccio, aggressively cross-examined Ortolano, trying to portray her as a willing sexual partner. Puccio stressed that Ortolano had been drinking at the party and implied that she had not resisted Kelly's advances. She repeatedly denied Puccio's insinuations that she had flirted with Kelly. She also protested that she was not drunk, which was corroborated by other partygoers in testimony for the prosecution.

When police officers to whom Ortolano reported the alleged rape took the stand, Puccio asked why they had taken no photographs of her injuries. The police responded that her distraught emotional state made them decide against it. Gynecologist Marilyn Kessler introduced a visible representation of her injuries. Dr. Kessler had not conducted an internal examination at the time of the incident. Consequently, Judge Martin Nigro ruled that Dr. Kessler would not be allowed to testify that a rape had occurred. Yet Kessler did describe the teenager's injuries in detail and offered a medical illustration drawn from her report on the girl's physical condition, infuriating Puccio and his client.

Defense Claims Consent

The defense began its case with an appearance by Kelly's girlfriend Amy Molitor, whose family's Jeep Wagoneer he was using on the night of the incident. Molitor was an object of constant fascination to the press and the public, who speculated what was going on in the mind of the attractive young woman who came to court every day with Kelly, holding his hand. To cast doubt on the idea that Kelly would force sex upon anyone, Puccio had Molitor testify that she and Kelly were involved in an intimate relationship during the period when the incident took place. More significantly, Puccio asked Molitor to describe how two hands were needed to lower the back seat of her family's Jeep. Pressing the point without objection, Puccio arranged to have the jury view the vehicle itself and let them examine how the seat-lowering mechanism worked.

Puccio's contention that the sex was consensual was seconded by Joe Kelly, Alex's father, who recalled confronting his son in the middle of the night over a phone call from Adrienne's father." 'Alex,' I said, 'Mr. Bak says you raped his daughter," Kelly testified. "He said, 'Dad, I didn't rape his daughter. We had sex. Dad, go to bed.'" Prosecutor Bruce Huddock objected vociferously while Joe Kelly spoke. Judge Nigro sustained the objection and ordered Kelly's remarks stricken from the record. Puccio concluded his case with medical experts who testified about the effects of alcohol and the sexual behavior of adolescents. He accused Ortolano of willingly and drunkenly losing her virginity to Alex Kelly, then trying to cover up feelings of shame or disappointment. When Puccio presented his final arguments, he presented a scenario in which the "victim" was a liar bent on persecuting his client.

After several days of deliberations, the jury remained deadlocked 4-2 in favor of conviction. Judge Nigro declared a mistrial. The jurors voting against conviction wondered why the Baks had not reported the rape to police immediately. Jurors also realized that Ortolano's claims that Kelly's hands never left her throat and that he had lowered the back seat could not both be true, since the seat release required manual operation. Meanwhile, the public relations brawl surrounding the trial tumbled into the courthouse parking lot. "They came in here totally coiffed and dressed to kill," the abrasive Puccio said of Ortolano and her family. "You might even say they liked being here." Ortolano's lawyer responded furiously, accusing Puccio of pandering to the worst possible stereotypes of rape victims.

When Kelly's retrial began on April 9, 1997, Judge Kevin Tierney had replaced Judge Nigro. Tierney immediately dismissed the kidnapping charge against Kelly on grounds that there was insufficient proof of an abduction. Yet the prosecution was better prepared, both emotionally and in terms of new evidence. Ortolano testified that she had made "a mistake" in the first trial by insisting that Kelly's hands never left her throat as he pushed her into the back of the Jeep. She said that Kelly had removed one hand long enough to flip the seat release. Although Puccio accused her of changing her testimony, her claim agreed with the original statement she gave Darien police.

Despite Ortolano's adamant denials, Puccio charged that she had been smoking pot at the party the night of the incident, lowering her inhibitions. Puccio succeeded in introducing evidence that the blood on her underwear contained traces of marijuana. Puccio strove to destroy Ortolano's credibility, but she was more self-composed than she had been during the first trial. After she described the violent details of the rape, Puccio asked her how long the episode had lasted.

"Forever," she replied.

The defense's credibility problems increased. Thomas Kelly, an unrelated friend of Alex's, testified that Alex told him the day after the incident that the girl had been driven home by her friends, not by him. In retrospect, this was clearly a lie. Asked why he had not given this damaging information in the first trial, Thomas Kelly simply replied that no one had asked him to testify.

The Jury's Verdict

On June 12, the jury took eight hours to find Alex Kelly guilty. He seemed dumbfounded by the verdict. "Are you serious? I'm not guilty!" he said repeatedly to the jury before turning to his accuser. "Why are you doing this to me?" he said.

On June 24, Kelly was sentenced to the maximum term of 20 years imprisonment, to be suspended after 16 years. In contrast to the outburst at his conviction, Kelly apologized to his victim. The sentence, however, stood. So did plans for Kelly's trial for assaulting the identified Stamford woman. Facing a stronger case, which included DNA evidence, the fact that he possessed the woman's underwear when he was arrested, and outstanding charges for fleeing the United States, Kelly pleaded no contest on December 23, 1998. His sentence of 10 years was to run concurrently with his prison term for the Darien rape.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Glaberson, William. "Alex Kelly Avoids Trial in Second Rape." New York Times (December 24, 1998): BI, B6.

"The Jury: It Was Rape." Associated Press (June 13, 1997).

Weller, Sheila. Saint of Circumstance. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.

Williams, Monte. "In Retrial, Alex Kelly Is Convicted of Rape Committed 11 Years Ago." New York Times (June 13, 1997): Al, B6.