San Jose attorney Christopher Schumb has joined San Jose Inside as a contributing columnist. He’ll write about legal cases and disputes in Santa Clara County. This is his first column.—Editor
If you have seen all the media vans parked in front of the Criminal Courthouse on Hedding Street, it’s not for a location shoot of Law and Order. The media is there for the courtroom drama unfolding in the trial of William Lynch. Mr. Lynch alleges that he was a victim of horrific child abuse by a Catholic priest, Father Jerold Lindner, in 1975.
Mr. Lynch settled a civil suit he filed against Father Lindner and the church over a decade ago. In 2010, Mr. Lynch allegedly went to Father Lindner’s retirement home, and attacked the 67-year-old retired priest. From the outset, it was clear that Mr. Lynch’s agenda was to publicize the alleged abuse he, his brother and several other boys allegedly suffered at the hands of Father Lindner.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed felony assault and elder abuse charges against Mr. Lynch. The trial has not gone smoothly. Before the trial began, Judge David Cena ruled that allegations of child abuse would be admissible to attack Father Lindner’s credibility. However, the scope of his exam on this issue must be brief so as not to consume an undue amount of time, because it was a peripheral issue. Deputy District Attorney Vickie Gemetti, who is very well respected by criminal attorneys—both prosecutors and defense—made a tactical decision to defuse the abuse allegations by playing, as part of her opening statement, a tape recording of an interview in which Lynch detailed the alleged sexual abuse. The jury was in tears after hearing the tape, and the defense attorneys asked that Judge Cena modify his previous ruling limiting the scope of the questioning about the alleged sexual abuse because Ms. Gemetti had “opened the door” by playing the tape. Judge Cena agreed, and the defense was then allowed to extensively cross-exam Father Lindner about the abuse allegations.
Ms. Gemetti also told the jurors in her opening statement that she didn’t know for sure what Father Lindner would say about the allegations of abuse, but that he might lie to them by denying that he abused the boys. The defense attorneys cried foul asserting that Ms. Gemetti was suborning perjury by putting Father Lindner on the stand, knowing that he was going to lie. This is not as uncommon as one might think. In some criminal cases, especially domestic violence cases, the abused spouse may have a change of heart prior to trial and either deny that the assault occurred or downplay it. But Ms. Gemetti had another problem: She had actually met with Father Lindner and his attorney, Joe Wall—a highly experienced criminal defense attorney and a lead defense attorney in the DeAnza rape trial. During this meeting Father Lindner told her that he would deny that he ever sexually abused anyone if he were asked the question at trial.
Ms. Gemetti failed to disclose Father Lindner’s statement to Mr. Lynch’s defense counsel as is required by law. After Ms. Gemetti’s opening statement, Father Lindner’s attorney, Joe Wall, sent Ms. Gemetti a message reminding her of their meeting. Ms. Gemetti then sent a text message to one of Mr. Lynch’s defense attorneys saying that, by the way, she forgot to inform them that she had interviewed Father Lindner and he was going to deny the abuse allegations. Mr. Lynch’s defense counsel made hay over the belated disclosure. But just this week Father Lindner took the stand and testified about the assault.
The last question Ms. Gemetti asked him was whether or not he had abused Mr. Lynch or his brother. Father Lindner answered “no” to both questions. Now comes the technical part— Father Lindner could not invoke his Fifth Amendment Right to remain silent to the questions about the alleged abuse, because the Statute of Limitations for such sex crimes had long since expired. He was under no threat of criminal prosecution. But, once Father Lindner denied the allegations of sex abuse under oath, he could now be subject to a perjury charge for lying under oath. Since the prosecutor opened that door, Father Lindner did promptly invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on Monday, just before the defense counsel was to begin cross-examining him. This set off a flurry of mud fight that would make any Judge cringe.
Father Lindner had already testified as to the facts of the assault, so the prosecution had what it needed to make its case. But just before the defense tried to cross-examine him, he refuses to answer any more questions, depriving Mr. Lynch of his Sixth Amendment Right to confront his accuser. Judge Cena then did the only thing that he could do—he invited Mr. Lynch’s defense attorneys to move to strike all of Father Lindner’s testimony, which Judge Cena promptly granted. The defense then moved for a mistrial because of the concern that that jury, having heard the words of a retired Catholic Priest detailing Mr. Lynch’s assault, wouldn’t be able to completely disregard his story. But Judge Cena denied Lynch’s motion for a mistrial—a move that had some court watchers scratching their heads. Only one witness had testified, and to start over with a fresh jury would not have been too much to ask for given the circumstances.
Now the prosecution must try to prove its case without the alleged victim, using other witnesses to the assault and its aftermath— a difficult task at best. The Judge has also limited the defense from admitting testimony of other alleged victims of Father Lindner, because his credibility is no longer an issue. This will certainly refocus the jury on the assault and not the allegations of sexual abuse.
Which side benefited from all this legal maneuvering is hard to say. Only the verdict will tell. But the high drama has created legal issues that, in the event of a guilty verdict, will provide fodder for appeals for years.
Christopher Schumb is an attorney with a general practice in San Jose.