I attended the Ontario County Court trial of Steven Feliciano, who was convicted in December of multiple sexual offenses based on the testimony of Jane (a pseudonym), who said that during her childhood and adolescence she was subjected to six years of sexual assaults and abuse by Feliciano.
Jane’s accusations were made years after the alleged crimes occurred, at a time when Jane’s mother and Feliciano were engaged in a contentious Family Court matter. There were no eyewitnesses or physical or medical evidence to support Jane’s testimony. Jane couldn’t give dates or even the seasons that most of these crimes occurred. It was revealed that when Jane had medical appointments during the time of the alleged abuse, she replied no to questions asking if she had ever been sexually abused.
To enhance Jane’s credibility, First Assistant District Attorney Jason MacBride established that Jane has always been a law-abiding, mentally healthy individual who excelled in both the classroom and in athletic events. But one could also wonder why Jane didn’t have mental health or social adjustment issues if terrible things were happening to her.
Ontario County Sheriff’s Investigator John Falvo assisted Jane with making a recorded phone call to Feliciano, who told Jane “don’t worry about that, those things.” Very possibly, but not definitely, Feliciano was referring to sexual matters. I wish there had been more follow-up recorded phone calls that might have elicited more incriminating information. While Jane’s testimony and gentle, soft-spoken demeanor helped the prosecution’s case, the only time the jury heard Feliciano was in the recorded conversation during which Feliciano was loud and vulgar.“If Mr. Feliciano doesn’t testify, he is toast,” I thought.
Jurors were instructed not to speculate why a defendant does not testify. But since I wasn’t a juror, I speculated. If Feliciano had admitted guilt to his attorney Marcea Tetamore, surely she wouldn’t want him to testify. If he had maintained his innocence to Tetamore, they both knew Feliciano’s status as a registered sex offender for abusing a different girl would be provided to the jury. There was also a possibility that during cross-examination of Feliciano, cloudy issues in this case could be clarified in a manner unfavorable for Feliciano.
After the defense rested without calling any witnesses, I thought Feliciano was probably guilty of at least some of the charges, but I wasn’t certain MacBride proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — a burden that goes beyond establishing probability of guilt.
After the verdict, Sheriff Philip Povero, during the annual awards ceremony, said he was told by many that without Falvo’s perseverance, this case may not have made it to court.
I attended Feliciano’s Dec. 21 sentencing. Jane spoke about how Feliciano took advantage of her, but she also tearfully told Feliciano she forgave him, that she hoped he would be helped and not harmed in prison. Feliciano once again declined to speak in his own defense, even though there would be no cross-examination this time. During the entire sentencing hearing, Feliciano looked at the floor. I sensed he was feeling shame and remorse. His demeanor was more like what one would expect from a guilty man than from an innocent man. I felt more comfortable with the jury’s verdict.
I have a lot of respect for Judge William Kocher, but I think the sentence of 35 years to life imprisonment he gave Feliciano, age 56 — who had been promised a 12 1/2-year sentence if he had pleaded guilty — is too harsh. I wish Feliciano had been sentenced to no more than 20 years imprisonment, along with a strong recommendation for his participation in prison sex offender and substance abuse treatment programs, followed by continuing community supervision upon release from prison. I also wonder if it was really necessary to impose fines payable from what little money Feliciano might have in his prison account.
As (the late) conservative U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “A decent and free society, founded in respect for the individual, ought not to run a prison system with a sign at the entrance saying ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.’” And the victim in this case portrayed Feliciano as a sick man in need of treatment as well as punishment.
Please read or reread my Aug. 25, 2014, Daily Messenger essay “It’s getting a little chilly in here,” accessible online. The essay describes how penetrating, bone-chilling cold air flows into FLCC classrooms and into jury deliberation rooms and courtrooms at the Ontario County Courthouse, putting people at risk for colds, flu or pneumonia. These problems continue to exist at the college and the courthouse.
One lesson to be learned from this case concerns the importance of victims of any kind of abuse, and any witnesses to these crimes, not to wait years or decades before reporting it. This applies not only to alleged sexual crimes, but also to domestic violence, bullying, mistreatment of animals and to other forms of cruelty.
Over the years, I have attended many proceedings at the Ontario County Courthouse. At most jury trials I have attended, I was the only spectator with no special interest in the outcome of the case.
For me, observing justice in action and the human drama involved in any trial are worthwhile learning experiences that have helped me to think about and to struggle with issues I had not previously thought about. In fact, the very first time I witnessed a trial at the Ontario County Courthouse more than 40 years ago became a transformative life experience for me — an experience that prompted me to continue my voyage through our criminal justice system, and to continue writing articles such as this article about justice and penology in our locality, our state and our country.
Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, is a frequent Messenger Post contributor.