Brentwood -- For Rhianna Light, it's over. Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Tina Nadeau recently ruled that Light's father, Phillip Bourgelais of Exeter, will not stand trial for allegedly sexually abusing his daughter between the ages of 6 and 7 based on her recovered memories. Light, now 18, claims that she began recalling suppressed memories of sexual abuse in 2001, first only in fragments, and later in full memories.
The court's decision was handed down April 5 following an evidentiary hearing that began last summer and concluded, after numerous continuations, on March 10.
"After a six-day evidentiary hearing during which the court considered expert testimony, the state's motion is denied and the court precludes the state from introducing the victim's testimony," the court order stated.
A New Hampshire state law, known as the Hungerford Law, prevents repressed and recovered memories from being admitted in court unless eight criteria are met. Four of the criteria concern the reliability of the science, and four are specific to the individual whose memories are in question - having to do with the age of the accuser when the alleged abuse took place, specific circumstances surrounding the abuse and the recovery process of the memories.
The court order stated, "The memories in this case do not rise to such a level that they overcome the divisive state of the scientific debates on the issue."
The court went on to cite five reasons for its decision: the fact that Light was "engaged in psychological counseling consistently from the time she was 4 years old through the present," the fact that the disclosures were made during a "heated custody battle," Light's age at the time the events allegedly occurred, the fact that the assistant county attorney requested Light attempt to retrieve more-specific memories of abuse, and the fact that "the court can find no corroboration for the alleged abuse."
The judge's ruling went on to explain that "the court must apply the standard articulated in Hungerford. In so doing, the court cannot conclude that the phenomenon of repressed memory recovery has yet been scientifically accepted, ... nor can the court find sufficient indicia of reliability present in the particular memories here to allow their admission into evidence.
"The court does not mean to suggest that Rhianna has fabricated the memories of the abuse," the order continued. "On the contrary, it is apparent that she genuinely believes the abuse occurred. Rather ... based on the law and evidence, the reliability of memory retrieval has not been sufficiently established to allow the introduction of Rhianna's memories here."
In a prepared statement, Light said: "It's hard to say how I feel about it. There are so many different emotions. Am I hurt? Yes. Angry? Yes. Sad? Yes. Confused? Absolutely. All I can say is that I took it as far as I could. I didn't give up or give in, neither did my friends and family who stood by me the whole way through. I am very disappointed in the ruling of this case; however, I do realize that the judge reviewed all of the facts and evidence, and unfortunately there just wasn't enough to corroborate my memories. A case like mine is much harder to prove then a case involving DNA and contusions."
Andrew Cotrupi of Hampton, Bourgelais' attorney, said his client is pleased with the decision. "It's the right decision," he said. "This process bankrupted my client and ruined his relationship with his daughter, so I wouldn't classify it as a great victory. But it's the right decision."
Light disagrees. "I remain where I stood when all of this began, which is that I know the truth," she said. "I know what happened to me, and so does Phillip Bourgelais. From the beginning, I voluntarily offered to take a polygraph test. Phil had the chance three times and refused all three."
Nevertheless, said Light, the time has come to move forward. "I have no choice now but to move on with my life and try to put this all behind me. But what was done to me will always be in the back of my mind," she said. "I hope that I have opened doors for others like me to come forward."
"This is a regional signal that repressed memories are not valid," Cotrupi said. "Every court in this area has agreed on this. Still, it requires parents and grandparents to dip into retirement accounts to pay for the experts," he said. "The state can outspend you, but it still can't make them right."
County Attorney Jim Reams was not available for comment.