In 1992, John E. Quattrocchi III, a 51-year-old attorney in Lincoln, Rhode Island, was accused of sexually assaulting the young daughter of his girlfriend on two occasions nearly 15 years earlier.
The charges were brought after the victim alleged that in 1992, when she was 19, she experienced a series of flashbacks of the assaults. At the time of the flashbacks, the victim had sought treatment a hospital because she was depressed and suicidal.
Quattrocchi began dating the girl’s mother in 1978 when the victim was between the age of three and four. Although they stopped dating in 1981, Quattrocchi maintained a relationship with the girl for nearly 10 more years, attending her school events, giving her gifts, and paying for two years of her private school tuition.
The victim alleged that based on the flashbacks—commonly referred to at the time as recovered memory or repressed recollection—she believed Quattrocchi had sexually assaulted her on a dinghy in Narragansett Bay, off Middletown, Rhode Island, in 1981. The other assault took place, she said, at his house in Lincoln in 1983.
She made a report to police in May 1992 and Quattrocchi was indicted and arrested later that year.
He went on trial in 1994 before a jury after the trial judge rejected a motion to bar her testimony alleging that recovered memory testimony was not reliable. It was the first such case in Rhode Island history.
The victim testified to the assaults and how the memories came to her in a series of flashbacks. She also admitted that she had complained that while in the hospital for depression she had been molested by another patient.
After she reported the flashbacks, the victim’s treating physician re-evaluated her and changed the diagnosis from bi-polar disorder to post traumatic stress disorder. The physician, as well as a psychiatric nurse who conducted therapeutic sessions with the victim, both testified that the victim had told them of the flashbacks about being sexually assaulted by Quattrocchi.
Quattrocchi testified in his own behalf and denied engaging in any sexual conduct with the victim.
In rebuttal, the prosecution called two women who testified about inappropriate sexual encounters with Quattrocchi. One said that in 1977 when she was seven and showering at his home after going swimming, he stepped into the shower naked. The other woman said he fondled her during a slumber party at a friend’s house in 1981. She told police of the incident at the time and Quattrocchi was arrested, but a grand jury declined to return an indictment.
On July 31, 1994, Quattrocchi was convicted by the jury of two counts of sexual assault. On September 12, 1994, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
On July 31, 1996, the Rhode Island Supreme Court vacated the conviction and remanded the case for a hearing to determine whether recovered memory testimony was reliable enough to be admitted as evidence. The court noted that experts had become increasingly concerened that therapeutic sessions were creating a narratives that were not factually true. The court also ruled that the rebuttal testimony involving other alleged incidents with two other girls was unfairly prejudicial and should not have been admitted at trial.
In the spring of 1998, a lengthy hearing was held, during which numerous experts testified that therapists, through hypnosis or suggestive questioning, can unwittingly plant false recollections in the minds of patients. They testified that they believed the victim’s therapist in this case had done just that.
The experts noted that courts in numerous other states had rejected recovered memory testimony as unreliable unless there was objective verification or independent corroboration.
In April 1999, Providence County Superior Court Judge Edward Clifton ruled that the victim’s recovered memory testimony was unreliable. “The state has not met is burden of establishing that repressed recollection is reliable and admissible as scientific evidence,” the judge said.
The judge ruled that the therapist treating the victim created “an air of suggestion as to her recovered memories.”
The state sought reconsideration, but on January 19, 2001, the request was denied.
The charges against Quattrocchi were dismissed on February 15, 2001.
– Maurice Possley