Sight Unseen

Carole Abbott was an expert witness in child sex-abuse cases. What she witnessed at home was a different matter.

On August 27, upon learning that Carole Abbott might be charged as an accessory to her husband's sex crimes, Goldberg fired her from Sungate. Several months later, as she was being questioned in a court hearing, Goldberg explained that the Abbotts' looming criminal prosecution was only part of the reason for the firing.

Goldberg: "That really wasn't the basis for my decision to terminate Ms. Abbott, although it was certainly a big part of it...I really felt that it had less to do with the criminal aspect than the human aspect of it."

Question: "Certainly somebody engaged in criminal behavior that's involved in the exact kind of thing that you are involved in trying to remedy at Sungate had a bearing on it, did it not?"

All in the family: Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters's office has a particularly close relationship with Sungate Children's Advocacy and Family Resources Inc.
All in the family: Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters's office has a particularly close relationship with Sungate Children's Advocacy and Family Resources Inc.

Goldberg: "Oh, absolutely, yes."

Yet firing Carole Abbott from Sungate for lapses in her personal conduct was only a partial solution. Troubling questions concerning what impact her private life might have had on her work still lingered. What about all of the forensic interviews Abbott had already performed -- many of them as her personal problems were yet unfolding -- that were still loose and tumbling through the justice system?

Legal rules say that, like it or not, a prosecutor must disclose any information he has that might weaken his own case. It might be a fact that could lead to the defendant being found innocent. Or it could merely lead to his receiving a lighter sentence.

Such information -- called exculpatory information -- may simply cast doubt on a witness's credibility. If, for example, a prosecutor lined up a doctor to testify in a case, the fact that the physician once lost his license because of malpractice would have to be shared with defense attorneys. The same would hold true for an informant poised to testify against a drug dealer: If the prosecutor knows the informant is a junkie, the defense lawyers need to know, too.

So did Jim Peters and Carol Chambers have a legal duty to tell opposing defense attorneys about Carole Abbott? It would seem so. After all, both prosecutors had known about her growing troubles -- troubles that had direct connection to her performance as an expert witness -- since the meeting of Sungate's executive committee on August 12.

But neither Chambers nor Peters did that. In fact, the criminal investigation of one of the Arapahoe County district attorney's most recognizable witnesses might not have come to light at all if a public defender hadn't heard about it through the grapevine.

John Portman heads the state public defender's office in the 18th Judicial District, which includes all of Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. Last year he added to his files another case of alleged sexual assault on a child. His client, a truck driver, stood accused of molesting the young daughter of an acquaintance of his family's over a yearlong period during 1995 and 1996. Although the alleged incident had occurred several years earlier, the girl didn't disclose the attacks until the summer of 1998. She and her family were quickly referred to Sungate. The girl was interviewed by Carole Abbott in September 1998.

Portman prepared his case throughout the fall, studying the tape of Abbott's interview. Yet it wasn't until early December, with the trial just around the corner, that he says he first heard "hallway rumors" about Abbott's problems at home. On December 6 Portman fired off a letter to Carol Chambers, who was prosecuting the case, demanding to know what she knew about Abbott. He says there was no response.

Indeed, Portman says he didn't hear anything more about Abbott for an entire month. On January 10, following a hearing on his case, Portman says Chambers still wouldn't give him any information about her expert witness, but she did -- grudgingly -- pass on the name of Detective Wickersham (who declined comment for this story).

Portman subpoenaed Wickersham's investigation report and, several days later, finally learned all about Carole Abbott and Sungate. By then, of course, thanks to her position on Sungate's executive committee, Chambers (and her boss, Peters) had known about Abbott's personal problems for nearly six months. They also knew that she had been fired from Sungate in late August for issues directly related to her work.

Portman was outraged. He felt that in its zeal to nail an alleged sex offender, the Arapahoe County DA's office was protecting Abbott by deliberately hiding -- or conveniently forgetting -- her legal and professional troubles. The following week, he asked for a special prosecutor on his case, arguing that there was now no way Carol Chambers could do the job.

Chambers referred all questions regarding Portman's case to Michael Knight, the DA's official spokesman. He says that even though Peters and Chambers were at the August meeting, during which Sungate's executive committee learned of Abbott's problems, both felt it would be premature to alert defense attorneys then. "We didn't feel it was appropriate to tell anyone at that point," Knight explains. "It was just allegations."

Additionally, Knight says that when Abbott eventually was fired, on August 27, Peters instructed all of his prosecutors working on sex cases to alert opposing defense attorneys to the fact -- but not necessarily to tell them why Abbott was let go.

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