Judge declares mistrial in Furst sexual assault case; Jurors say majority favored acquittal
A judge declared a mistrial yesterday in the case of a woman accused of molesting her stepson after the jury deadlocked, with eight of the 12 favoring acquittal, according to several on the panel.
The county attorney’s office will now decide whether to retry Deborah Furst, who claims her 10-year-old stepson is lying and being used as a pawn by her estranged wife to retain custody of their two children and possession of their Bradford home in the midst of a bitter divorce.
One juror who sat through the two days of testimony at Merrimack County Superior Court told the Monitor she believes Furst is innocent and said two jurors who were particularly convinced of her guilt seemed to base their decision on a “gut feeling” rather than a particular facet of the state’s case.
“They just felt that this boy wouldn’t make this story up,” said the juror, who asked not to be named. “And a lot of us felt that he would make this story up.”
Under state law, the jury could have convicted Furst of the four counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault she’s been charged with based simply on the word of her stepson. Testimony from alleged victims of sexual assaults – if believed beyond a reasonable doubt – does not need to be corroborated with other evidence to find guilt.
Furst and her estranged wife, Judy Parys, met in 1978 and entered a civil union in 2009, which automatically became a marriage when the state’s same-sex marriage law took effect later that year. Parys legally adopted their son in 2003 when he was about 15 months old. Furst is the child’s stepmother.
The boy, who calls Furst “ma,” testified at the beginning of the trial Monday that she started touching his penis and buttocks when he was 3 years old and continued doing so until he was 8. He said Furst always put her hand underneath his clothing but never touched him after taking his clothes fully off. The boy said the abuse happened mostly in their living room but that when Parys began working from home in 2010, Furst abused him there less often and began touching him in their garden and in booths at restaurants as Parys and his sister sat inches away.
When asked by the prosecutor Monday if he was telling the truth, the boy leaned into the microphone and promised he was.
But Furst’s lawyer wanted the jury to doubt his credibility.
Throughout the trial, attorney Robert Hunt reminded the jurors that the boy disclosed being abused just 16 days after Furst filed a petition in April 2012 for temporary custody and possession of the family’s home.
Furst moved out of that home in December 2011. Parys had sole custody of their kids for the five months before the boy said he had been abused.
When Furst took the stand in her own defense Tuesday, she walked jurors through her and Parys’s 35-year history together and told them Parys became manipulative and controlling when the two clashed over how to parent their son. She said the boy has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Parys uses extreme discipline to manage him, including threats and physical punishments.
Anticipating that Hunt would focus on the couple’s ongoing divorce, prosecutor Wayne Coull, in his opening statement, called the topic an “invitation to distraction.”
After starting discussions at 9 a.m. yesterday, the jury was already divided, 8-4, in favor of acquittal after about two hours, according to the juror who spoke with the Monitor. At 12:41 p.m. the foreman wrote a note to the judge saying the group was “strongly divided” and asking how to proceed.
Judge Richard McNamara told them to keep trying.
But about 3:50 p.m., none of the jurors had changed their mind, according to another note written to the judge. McNamara asked whether returning in the morning would be fruitful. When the foreman said it wouldn’t be, the judge declared a mistrial shortly after 4 p.m.
The juror who talked about the process said the group tried to break the deadlock by taking turns sharing their opinions and reading aloud through transcripts of the two recorded interviews the child completed with a county employee.
The woman said the deliberations grew tense at times, with people talking over one another and snapping if they didn’t get to finish their thoughts. She said one of the jurors who favored guilt flatly refused to read the motion Furst had filed for custody 16 days before the boy disclosed being abused. The man said it wasn’t admissible evidence, even though the judge had ruled that it could be considered as evidence by the jury, the woman said.
At another point a woman that favored guilt said she was tired of talking and didn’t want to explain her position, the juror said.
“She’s like, ‘I just don’t want to talk about it anymore,’ ” she said. “Okay, well, we do need to talk about it. You need to offer your opinion so you can either try to convince us or we can tell you the way we feel so we can convince you.”
Furst’s lawyer attempted to highlight inconsistencies between the boy’s two recorded interviews, and the juror said all of the eight who voted for acquittal recognized those discrepancies as valid reason for concern.
While in the first recording the boy said Furst only touched him in their living room, in the second he disclosed incidents outside, in his bedroom and in restaurants.
The juror said he made other questionable statements on the stand.
“We didn’t feel that the state presented enough evidence and his testimony, we were supposed to rely mostly on his testimony, and he jumped all around,” she said. “It did happen in Disney World and then it didn’t happen in Disney World. It happened only here and then it happened in restaurants.”
The juror also said many people were particularly skeptical of the notion that Furst could put her hand down the boy’s pants at restaurants without others noticing.
She said all of the jurors – even those who voted in favor of guilt – found Furst’s testimony Tuesday to be believable. The ones who thought she was guilty said they trusted almost everything she said, except for the parts where she denied abusing her son, the woman said.
She called sitting on the trial an emotional experience and added that she’s praying for Furst’s well-being as well as her stepson’s.
“You’re holding someone’s life in your hands,” she said.
Confident of acquittal
After seeing the state present its case, Hunt said yesterday that he’s confident Furst would be acquitted if prosecutors decide to go for a retrial.
“I think most specifically they are trying to pin their case to sympathy for a cute and likable little boy,” he said.
Hunt said prosecutors did not seem to take his defense seriously. When Parys testified Monday, no one directly questioned her about Furst’s accusations. And the prosecutors didn’t put Parys back on the stand after Furst offered her own testimony and described Parys as controlling and abusive.
The jury submitted a question yesterday asking the judge if that would have been permitted.
“Was the state allowed to call Judy back to the witness stand after the defense rests?” the foreman asked at 12:13 p.m.
The judge said it was.
The juror who spoke with the Monitor said many on the panel wondered why Parys hadn’t defended herself.
“After Deb accused her of all these things, if they weren’t true, then was it possible for the prosecution to put Judy back on the stand to rebut the things Deb said? . . . Did they have the possibility of doing that?” she asked before answering her own question.
“They did,” she said. “And why didn’t they? Because obviously the things Deb was saying were true.”
Before Furst’s trial, the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Families reversed its own finding that Furst sexually assaulted her stepson, said Hunt, who said officials seemed to largely base their decision on the inconsistencies in the child’s statements.
Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray has called DCYF’s reversal “irrelevant” to his office’s case.
But Hunt said that the state has now failed to prove Furst assaulted her stepson on two separate occasions.
“If the state of New Hampshire wants to waste resources trying a case it has twice failed to prove, so be it,” he said. “We will be prepared to fight this again.”
The jury was not aware of DCYF’s decision when deliberating. The juror who spoke with the Monitor said she read about that reversal in the newspaper after being sent home by the judge yesterday and felt that information could have changed some people’s minds.
“I can’t believe we didn’t have this information,” she said. “That may have made some impact on the people that were holding out. That’s important.”