News

Woman welcomes attacker's 'admission of guilt'

By Susan Gamble, Brantford Expositor

A former Port Dover woman says she finally has closure after the man who broke into her home and sexually assaulted her in 2011 was sentenced to jail.

"It's been five years and eight months since it happened," said the woman, who can't be identified due to a publication ban. "It ruined my life."

Stephen Stark pleaded guilty in Simcoe court this week to sexual assault and was sentenced by Justice Gethin Edward to 170 days in jail.

The sentence is part of a plea deal that ensured the woman would not have to testify, as she did during Stark's original trial four years ago. In June 2013, Ontario Court Justice Kevin Sherwood sentenced Stark to 15 months in jail for sexual assault and break and enter.

But the man was released from custody, pending an appeal, which was granted by the Ontario Court of Appeal last February. The appeal court ruled that the Stark's lawyer failed to tell him about his trial options.

Stark agreed to plead guilty and to a six-month jail sentence. He was given credit for time already served.

"It's only six months," said the woman. "He'll be eligible for early release Oct. 31, but it's an admission of guilt."

Stark was an acquaintance of the woman when he broke through the locked front door of her Port Dover home in the middle of the night.

"I woke up to find him over me," she said.

Terrified, the woman was unsuccessful in fighting off Stark.

"I feel regret and wish I had done more but I was so afraid my children would wake up," she wrote in a victim impact statement.

Today, she said she continues to have nightmares and jumps at any accidental touch.

Eventually, she moved far away from her hometown due to the stress she felt about running into the man or his family.

Her statement, read to the court this week, explained how she's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes leaves work in tears.

"One time when the power went out in a store, I immediately started to shake, tremble and cry. It came on so suddenly and I had no control over it."

Stark's case drew national interest because he won an appeal on the grounds of inadequate representation, a normally difficult appeal route because counsel is presumed to be competent.

The appeal turned on what occurred after the prosecution announced at the start of the original trial that it was proceeding by way of direct indictment on both charges, and the court asked -- as is normal -- whether Stark wished to proceed immediately or instead face a preliminary inquiry.

The defence lawyer, who said he was surprised at the prosecution's intentions, responded that Stark wanted to be tried right away.

These facts were considered sufficient to fatally undermine the fairness of the trial

In looking at the situation, the appeal court said it was clear the defence lawyer had prepared only for an immediate summary trial. When the prosecution announced its intentions to proceed by way of indictment, the lawyer should have asked his client if he wanted to go the preliminary route -- a decision that is a fundamental right of an accused.

The defence lawyer maintained he did ask Stark during a pause in proceedings that lasted at most 90 seconds, and the client gave him the go-ahead to proceed right away. Stark, however, said he didn't know what was going on, the lawyer explained nothing, and that he would have gone the preliminary inquiry route had he been given the choice.

While the prosecution backed the defence lawyer, the appeal court sided with Stark -- based largely on his lawyer's admissions.

During the original trial the defence lawyer argued that Stark was drunk at the time he broke into the woman's home but that she agreed to have sex with him.

The woman said that she was "devastated" at the thought of having to testify again. This week, she learned that the plea bargain had been finalized and Stark was taken to Hamilton-Wentworth jail.

"I read that when someone does that to your body, it's like putting a tattoo on you and you spend the rest of your life trying to remove it," the woman said.

Stark will be on the sex offenders registry and was ordered to remain on probation for a year after his release.

SGamble@postmedia.com

@EXPSGamble

With files from Canadian Press

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