In a 4-3 decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday threw out the conviction of a man found guilty of sexually assaulting a severely handicapped woman.
Richard Fourtin, 28, was convicted by a jury in 2008 of attempted sexual assault in the second-degree and sexual assault in the fourth-degree. Fourtin allegedly raped the woman, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy and cannot talk or walk, in her home in 2006. At the time, Fourtin was dating the victim’s mother.
The disabled woman can only move her right index finger and has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old. But the court ruled (PDF) there was insufficient evidence that the victim could not communicate with Fourtin, since the disabled woman could have expressed herself using “gestures, kicking, biting, screaming or screeching.”
The ruling has faced severe criticism.
“We are incredibly disappointed with the State Supreme Court’s decision in the Fourtin case,” Anna Doroghazi, director of public policy and communication at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, said in a statement. “The court’s interpretation of what it means to be ‘physically helpless’ jeopardizes the safety of people with disabilities.”
At issue in the case was whether the disabled woman was “physically helpless” because of her condition. Under Connecticut law, both sexual assault in the second-degree and sexual assault in the fourth-degree require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was physically helpless.
“As a preliminary matter, it bears emphasis that no one would dispute that the victim is physically helpless in the ordinary sense of that term,” the court wrote in its decision. “Physical helplessness under [Connecticut law], however, has a highly particularized meaning that is unrelated to whether a person is physically able to resist unwanted sexual advances or mentally able to understand when to resist such advances.”
The judges said that physical incapacity could not be considered “physically helpless” under the law. The term “physically helpless” only applied to victims who were unconscious or were incapacitated by drugs, and therefore unable to communicate.
But prosecutors never claimed the victim was “unable to communicate an unwillingness to an act.” To the contrary, prosecutors had made the argument that she had limited means of communicating, according to the ruling.
Connecticut state Rep. Gerald Fox III (D) told NBC Connecticut that he plans to introduce legislation to clarify the law.
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