A Catholic school tutor in Grand Rapids, Michigan accused of sexually abusing her former student offered expert witness testimony to argue she was pressured into the encounter by the teenager. Two years ago the 33-year-old educator was arrested for having a sexual relationship with her then 15-year-old student, but her defense team has argued that she was the victim and called a sex abuse expert to help jurors understand her actions.
Tutor Accused of Sexual Abuse Claims Duress
Abigail Simon, now 35, stands trial for sexual assault of a former Catholic school student of hers two years ago after the two shared an intimate relationship. Ms. Simon was discovered when a series of sexually explicit text messages indicated she had been sleeping with her now 17-year-old former student, leading prosecutors to file the sexual abuse charges. Although the defendant concedes that she engaged in an improper sexual relationship with her former student, her attorneys focused the defense on evidence that the underage student was the aggressor, causing Ms. Simon to engage in sexual activity under duress.
Arguing that the teenager was a sexually dominant young man who pressured his former tutor into the relationship, Ms. Simon’s attorneys presented a series of text messages between the young man and his friends that featured the victim bragging about his sexual conquests with Ms. Simon and others. The victim testified for over four days early in the trial, and was peppered by defense attorneys about his sexually explicit text messages and his behavior towards the defendant.
After laying the foundation for her defense, Simon’s attorneys called a sexual abuse expert witness to testify that the victim’s aggressive behavior and her history as an abused woman made her vulnerable to his sexual advances.
Sex Abuse Expert Witness Testifies for Defense
Tom Cottrell, vice president of counseling at the YWCA, was called by Simon’s defense team as an expert in sexual abuse. After years of counseling sex assault victims and offenders, Mr. Cottrell was asked to provide an explanation for Ms. Simon’s behavior during her sexual relationship with one of her male students. Although Mr. Cottrell did not opine that Abigail Simon was the victim as her attorneys argue, he explained that because she was a former domestic abuse victim herself, she could perceive some of the messages the teenager sent her as threatening. Such duress, Cottrell testified, could create a situation where Ms. Simon was concerned how the 6 foot 3 inch, 220 pound teenager would react to her avoiding a sexual relationship.
To supplement Cottrell’s testimony, defense attorneys called friends of the former tutor who confirmed that a previous boyfriend had, in fact, abused her throughout her former relationship. Linking the past abuse with her sexual relationship to a 15-year-old, defense attorneys attempted to convince jurors that Simon was coerced into sex and therefore not guilty of sexual assault of a minor.
Prosecutors Dispute Sex Assault Justification
Assistant prosecuting attorney Helen Brinkman called the defense tactics a “play in the theater of the absurd,” and criticized Simon’s attorneys for trying to trash the victim as a sexually aggressive manipulator rather than a 15-year-old unable to resist the advances of his tutor. Prosecutors also talked to Tom Cottrell, and elicited testimony from the sex abuse expert that highlighted several aspects of the profile of a sex abuser the teenager did not fit, despite the defense attorney’s claims that the young man was in control of the sexual relationship. Further, Cottrell testified that sex abuse victims often try to keep the relationship a secret, which is something the 15-year-old did throughout his relationship with Simon.
The trial of Abigail Simon will continue for several more days before jurors are asked to return a verdict.