Tony Cercy Trial: Psychologist Outlines Traumatic Effects of Sexual Assault
THERMOPOLIS -- A clinical psychologist from Denver who specializes in trauma identified some of the myths about sexual assault and victims during her testimony Thursday on the fourth day of the third-degree sexual assault trial of Casper businessman Tony Cercy.
"The general public does not understand why they react the way they do," Dr. Sheri Vanino said during questioning by Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen.
For example, the warnings about "stranger danger" are misplaced because most sexual assault are committed by people known and/or trusted by victims, Vanino said.
Perpetrators rarely use weapons, victims usually do not immediately call 9-1-1, victims general do not remember things perfectly or what the perpetrator was wearing or doing at the time of the assault, she said.
"It's about power and control on the part of the perpetrator," Vanino said.
She has personally worked with hundreds of victims of sexual assault and was the clinical director of the largest sexual assault rape crisis center in Colorado, she said.
She told Blonigen, as well as Cercy defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca during cross-examination, that her role in the trial was strictly educational.
The case started last year when the alleged victim, after initial resistance, reported the incident at Cercy's former house at Alcove lake early June 25.
Cercy was charged in July 2017 with one count each of first-degree sexual assault (rape), one count of second-degree sexual assault, and one count of third-degree sexual assault.
In February, a jury in Natrona County District Court acquitted him of the first two counts, but deadlocked on the third count.
District Court Judge Daniel Forgey declared a mistrial.
In March, the woman asked and District Attorney Mike Blonigen agreed to again file the charge of third-degree sexual assault.
In June, Forgey granted the defense attorneys' request to move the trial to Hot Springs County because of the intense publicity before, during and after the first trial.
The new trial required that the whole case be presented again, including testimony from the alleged victim, her father, people at the lake that weekend, and expert witnesses including Vaninio.
She said only 16 percent to 26 percent of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement and it may be days, weeks or years before victims seek professional counseling.Is not true that most sexual assaults are from strangers, she said.
Weapons are usually not used, that victims usually do not call 9-1-1, that victims generally do not remember things perfectly or what the perpetrator was wearing or doing at the time of the assault.
Only 16 percent to 26 percent of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement and it may be days or weeks before the report is made.
Younger victims may not report the crime due to embarrassment, fear of losing friends, fear of parents finding out they were drinking or using drugs, or if the perpetrator is a person in authority like a boss or coach who can retaliate with dismissal from a job or a team.
Vanino also said that younger victims may not report the crime due to embarrassment, fear of losing friends, fear of parents finding out they were drinking to excess, or if the perpetrator is a person in authority like a boss who can have her fired.
Fear plays a major role, too, because a victim may be worried a perpetrator may try to harm her or him, Vanino said.
Alcohol often is used by victims and perpetrators, she added.
She said sometimes victims will avoid thinking about the attack, and maybe even pretending it never happened. Sometimes, she said they might blame themselves for being in that kind of situation. She said sometimes victims will avoid thinking about the attack, and maybe even pretending it never happened. Sometimes, she said they might blame themselves for being in that kind of situation.
"Avoidance is a cornerstone of trauma," Vanino said.
Trauma, by definition, is experiencing something that could result in serious bodily injury or death, or seeing it in others, she explained.
The trauma is most present closest to the time of the assault, and recollection of events may be difficult, Vanino said. Some circumstances may be "burned in their memory," while others are just forgotten. Likewise, emotional responses can vary to point that they think they're crazy, she added.
Cercy’s defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca focused on what Vanino is not.
Namely, she is not licensed to practice in Wyoming, that she is not a neuro-psychologist familiar with how the brain operates, nor is she a researcher. She also admitted she did not interview the alleged victim, the witnesses or Cercy himself.
Pagliuca said, and Vanino agreed, that victims will sometime fill in the gaps -- "confabulation" -- in an experience with things that did not necessarily happen
Pagliuca said, and Vanino agreed, that victims will sometime fill in the gaps in an experience with things that did not necessarily happen.
"Memory is a very complicated issue," she said.
Pagliuca raised the issue of alcohol-induced Korsakoff syndrome, which can seriously affect memory, and Vanino agreed that can happen.
Under further questioning from Blonigen, however, Vanino said Korsakoff syndrome is an effect of severe alcoholism in severely addicted people.
She repeated the fear sexual assault victims feel to the point that they're scared an imprisoned perpetrator can retaliate.
"Most sexual assault victims are petrified," Vanino said.
Testimony continues Thursday afternoon.