By Mike LaBella
---- — SALEM, Mass. — After about four hours of deliberation, a jury found Heather Paltinavich of Haverhill not guilty of two counts of statutory rape yesterday in Essex County Superior Court in Salem.
Immediately after the jury announced its decision, Paltinavich broke into tears and hugged her defense lawyer, Scott Gleason of Haverhill.
Just moments before, Gleason had asked Paltinavich's family members and friends who were in the courtroom to maintain their composure, no matter what the jury's decision was.
But it was hard to hold back the tears of joy and signs of relief they expressed at the not guilty verdict. After Paltinavich walked out of the courtroom, she appeared elated and told The Eagle-Tribune that she can finally get back to living her life and to her job as a secretary.
Her mother, Wendy Smith, said the trial ended in the way it should have, with a not guilty finding.
"The truth came out ... the truth prevailed," Smith said.
Paltinavich's friend Sheary Adams who testified for the defense during the trial said Paltinavich can now get back to rebuilding her life and making new friends. Adams said many of Paltinavich's friends abandoned her after police brought the child rape charges against her last year, and since that time she's had to endure insults and being called all kinds of derogatory names. She said that even though Paltinavich was found not guilty, the stigma of being publicly accused will long remain.
"The people who knew she was innocent stood by her side," Adams said.
Paltinavich was on trial after being charged with two counts of statutory rape of a 12-year-old boy. The incidents were alleged to have occurred while Paltinavich was staying with the boy, his younger brother and their mother in their apartment in Haverhill.
On Oct. 15, 2012, Paltinavich was arrested on a warrant and charged after she allegedly had sex twice with the boy that summer. She was 19 when the alleged incidents took place and turned 20 that September.
Her trial began Monday in Superior Court in Salem with the selection of a jury. Opening arguments by the prosecution and defense began on Tuesday, followed by the questioning of several witnesses, including a police detective, the boy's mother and the boy. Paltinavich took the stand yesterday, followed by closing arguments. The case was presided over by Justice Howard Whitehead.
The boy's mother testified on Tuesday that she found out about the alleged incidents after her son discovered blood in his urine later that summer. She said she had him tested the first week of September and he twice tested positive for chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. She said her son was prescribed an antibiotic and when tested a third time the results were negative.
The mother later said she never notified police about the test that was negative and never provided police investigators with any medical records of her son being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.
The woman said her son told her he'd had sex with Paltinavich on two occasions during the summer of 2012. The boy testified that the first time was in June and the second instance was a few weeks later. The boy's mother also testified that Paltinavich had commented to her about her (Paltinavich's) boyfriend having experienced symptoms of pain when urinating.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Paltinavich's boyfriend denied ever having had a sexually transmitted disease.
Paltinavich took the stand yesterday, and denied having had sex with the boy. She also denied ever having had a sexually transmitted disease and said she went for a complete health check up shortly after the boy's mother accused her of giving her son chlamydia.
During his closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney James Gubitose said the central question in the case was "why would the boy make up a story about having had sex with Paltinavich."
"Why would he say it was her? Why would he point the finger at her if it wasn't her?" Gubitose said.
Gubitose reminded the jury that Paltinavich referred to the boy as a "good kid," and a respectful boy who was not a troublemaker.
"There was no reason to say that unless it (sex) happened," Gubitose said.
Gleason told the jury that "just because somebody says something, doesn't mean it's true." He told the jury that police decided to charge Paltinavich after the boy's mother told them her son had contracted chlamydia from Paltinavich.
Gleason said police never verified whether the boy had the disease, or whether Paltinavich had it.
"What evidence do you have that Heather Paltinavich had chlamydia?" Gleason boomed. "None."
The foreman of the jury told The Eagle-Tribune following the trial that the jury's decision was based on a "lack of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that she (Paltinavich) was guilty.
He said jurors were expecting to have a number of things presented to them in the form of evidence, most notably medical records of the defendant (Paltinavich), those of her boyfriend as well as the medical records of the boy she allegedly had sex with.
"There was a lot missing," said Kelly Cunningham, foreman of the jury. "So it was essentially a he-said, she-said case and there were big holes in being able to reach a verdict."