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Family loyalties divided as domestic sex assault trial begins in Juneau

Attorneys give opening statements Wednesday; first witness will testify Thursday

Posted: September 4, 2013 - 9:35pm  |  Updated: September 5, 2013 - 12:15am
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Frank Lee, 60, watches as Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland and paralegal Thea Howard prepare for opening statements in Juneau Superior Court on Wednesday. Lee is on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman who was sleeping over at his house after his 60th birthday celebration.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Frank Lee, 60, watches as Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland and paralegal Thea Howard prepare for opening statements in Juneau Superior Court on Wednesday. Lee is on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman who was sleeping over at his house after his 60th birthday celebration.

On one side of the courtroom, two sisters took their seats directly behind the defendant’s table, a visual display of support for their 60-year-old brother who is standing trial for sexually assaulting a family member in his apartment last year.

Across the aisle, the step-mother of the alleged victim avoided eye contact with them from behind the state prosecutor’s table. Tears quietly flowing, she whispered, “You know what’s hard about this? The family’s been friends for a long time, so it’s put a wedge between us.”

The family’s loyalties have been divided into two camps ever since Frank W. Lee was arrested last September after his birthday party: those who believe the 22-year-old woman, who reported to police that she awoke the morning of Sept. 10, 2012, to find Lee performing sex acts on her, and those who believe Lee, who maintains his innocence.

Lee and the alleged victim are not related by blood. The Empire is not disclosing exactly how they related in order to continue protecting her identity.

After 12 jurors and two alternates were selected to hear the case, the trial began with opening statements from attorneys on Wednesday afternoon.

Prosecutors alleged Lee “groomed” the woman for a sexual relationship in her late teens while she was still living under his roof, and spent “years of preparation and planning waiting for this moment,” an argument that drew an objection from the defense who noted Lee did not raise her or know her as a child.

Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams said on the night of the incident, the woman, her son and her friend had all fallen asleep around midnight in a back bedroom of Lee’s apartment. The assault was the woman’s crude “wake up call” in the morning around 5:30 a.m., Williams said.

The woman yelled at Lee to stop when she awoke and attempted to push him off with her legs, but Lee continued for several more seconds before he got off her and left the room, Williams said. The woman’s yells caused her friend to wake up, and the friend also recognized the person as Lee, Williams said.

Furthermore, Williams told the jury, police obtained a Glass warrant the next day and recorded a phone call conversation between Lee and the woman (with the woman’s permission), and that Lee confessed. She played a portion of the audio recording, and Lee is heard admitted to digitally penetrating her and making oral contact with her genitals.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lee is heard saying when she tells him, “You’re supposed to treat me like a (family member).”

“He knows what he did, and he apologized,” Williams told the jurors.

Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland also played a portion of the recorded phone call for the jury — the very beginning of the conversation wherein the woman first identifies herself. Lee doesn’t seem to know who he’s talking to and is heard telling the woman that he’s been drunk for the past couple of days on a “bender.”

“He is clearly, audibly drunk,” Hedland said in his opening.

Hedland said that means the state’s whole case is hinging on a drunken phone call, especially in light of the fact that DNA tests came back in favor of his client. He told the jury that the evidence in the case will show samples were taken from both the woman and Lee within hours of the 911 phone call and that only her DNA showed up in her DNA samples and only Lee’s DNA showed up in his DNA samples.

“Not that there wasn’t a DNA match — there was no DNA,” Hedland stressed. “Not that they didn’t look for DNA — but that there was no DNA when they looked for it. Big difference.”

Hedland also questioned the timeline of the event and narrowed the gap of time that the alleged assault could have taken place. He told jurors evidence will show that the victim was awake at 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m. on Facebook and texting until about 4:45 a.m. when her boyfriend posted a “Good night” message on her Facebook page. At 4:57 a.m., just “12 minutes later,” Hedland said, the boyfriend received a text from her informing him of the assault. Hedland said police were called at about 5:27 a.m., and the woman was taken straight from the house to the hospital for a forensic sexual assault exam.

Hedland told the jury that the woman made the allegations because she didn’t like Lee and she thought he was a “creepy old man.”

“I’m going to ask you to consider (at the end of the trial) whether the state presented any more evidence than drunken incoherent ramblings from a dirty old man, and allegations from an apparently bitter and unhappy young woman,” Hedland said. “And I’m going to ask you to find my client not guilty.”

As the trial gets underway — the first witness will be called to testify on Thursday morning — the family members say they will be there in the courtroom every day until a verdict is reached. The trial, which is being held in Judge Louis Menendez’s courtroom in Juneau Superior Court, is expected to wrap up by Monday.

Sisters Fran and Mabel waved to Lee, the fourth oldest child of 12 siblings, as he was escorted out of the courtroom by an officer and was taken back to the jail. Fran said she is convinced of his innocence.

“They better let him go,” she said.

On the other side of the aisle, the alleged victim’s step-mother, who the Empire is also not naming as to not reveal her step-daughter’s identity, said she is acting as the “eyes and ears” for other family members who couldn’t attend the trial due to work. Despite the close seating arrangements, she said she hasn’t spoken to the other side of the family since the assault was reported.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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