BOISE, Idaho – A woman who reported she was raped by an Idaho lawmaker while serving as a legislative intern testified in the former lawmaker's trial on Wednesday, haltingly describing the moments the assault began before abruptly leaving the witness stand.
“I can't do this,” the woman said, quickly walking out of the courtroom.
The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted, and has referred to the woman in this case as “Jane Doe” at her request.
Doe was a 19-year-old intern when she told her supervisors that then-Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, a Republican from Lewiston, raped her at his Boise apartment after the two had dinner at a restaurant.
Von Ehlinger, 38, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object, and maintains the two had consensual sex. He resigned from the House of Representatives last year after a legislative ethics committee recommended he be banned from the Statehouse.
During testimony Wednesday afternoon, Ada County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katelyn Farley asked Doe to describe an article of clothing worn by von Ehlinger that day, presumably to identify him to the jury.
“Blazer,” Doe said, taking long looks around the room. When Farley asked her to describe the color of von Ehlinger's tie, Doe answered, “I can't."
Most of Doe's answers were often one or two words long, and she frequently looked toward the jury or the exit door in the back of the courtroom. At other times her gaze landed on the defense table where von Ehlinger sat with his defense attorney, Jon Cox.
Behind the attorneys, the gallery of the courtroom was full. Journalists, representatives from victim services and other onlookers sat side-by-side. One of the benches was reserved for a woman with a service dog — the animals are sometimes used to provide a supportive presence for witnesses who are asked to give difficult testimony.
Doe's voice was quiet, and Cox repeatedly interrupted her answers to say that he couldn't hear her. That prompted the judge to repeatedly ask Doe to scoot closer to the microphone, and lean in.
“I need you to look at me,” Farley told Doe, again.
“I can't,” she responded, looking again toward the rear exit door.
In response to Farley's questions, Doe said she ate at a restaurant with von Ehlinger and that afterward he drove her to his apartment in his car. Inside, she sat down and had cookies. “Oreos,” she said.
Then, she said, von Ehlinger picked her up and carried her into his bedroom.
“He laid me down ... he removed his clothes ... he climbed on top of me ... in just his boxers. White T-shirt,” Doe said. “He tried to put his fingers between my legs and I closed my knees.”
At that, she stood up.
“I can't do this anymore,” she said, fleeing the courtroom.
The judge gave the prosecuting attorneys 10 minutes to find her and see if she would return. When she did not, Reardon told the jurors they had to “strike (Doe's testimony) from your minds as if it never happened,” because the defense could not cross-examine her.
It was the second day of the trial. On Tuesday, jurors heard from police detectives and the nurse who completed a rape examination on Doe roughly 48 hours after she said the assault occurred. The nurse testified that Doe told her that she tried to stop von Ehlinger's sexual advances by saying she hadn't shaved, that she wasn't on birth control and that she was menstruating. Doe also told her that von Ehlinger had placed the handgun he always carried on a dresser near the bed, and that he pinned Doe during the assault by climbing on top of her and kneeling on her upper arms.
The detectives and nurse also told jurors that Doe reported she told von Ehlinger “no” during the assault and said he was hurting her. The nurse said Doe reported arm pain during the exam, and that she had a swollen “goose egg” on the back of her head that she said happened when she tried to jerk her head away from von Ehlinger's crotch, hitting the wall or a headboard.
Jurors also heard from forensic scientists who said that DNA from bodily fluids collected during Doe's rape exam matched von Ehlinger.
After Doe left the courtroom, the prosecutor called Laura King, an associate criminal justice professor from Boise State University who is an expert in sexual violence victimization.
King told jurors that victims of a sexual assault often fight, flee or freeze during the assault, and that the hormones that trigger those responses can also cause a person to experience temporary paralysis or dissociation, a mental state where they feel disconnected from reality.
Those same physiological responses including dissociation can also happen when sexual assault survivors describe the assault, King said. Such behavior may seem strange, but it is a natural reaction to an assault, she said.
Cox asked King whether she knew anything about von Ehlinger's case. King said she did not.
“You talk specifically about these conditions — fight, flight, freeze, dissociative events, tonic immobility — but you have no idea because you don’t have any information about this case specifically, right?" Cox asked King.
King agreed, saying she was talking generally about the research on sexual assault victims.
After King's testimony, Farley said the prosecution's case was over.
Cox said he would let the judge know on Thursday morning if von Ehlinger will testify in his own defense.
If convicted, von Ehlinger could face a maximum penalty of life in prison on each charge.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jon Cox's first name.