Priest to Get New Trial
Monsignor Louis Ward Dunn Was Convicted Last Month of Having Raped a Parishioner in 1982
By Gerald M. Carbone
August 7, 1997
Moved by a flood of letters in support of a Catholic priest he convicted of rape, a Superior Court judge overturned the verdict yesterday, and ruled that the priest is entitled to a new trial.
In a move that may be unprecedented in Rhode Island's legal history, Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. ruled that he erred last month when he convicted Monsignor Louis Ward Dunn in the 1982 rape of a 21-year-old parishioner.
In a ruling that took nearly an hour to deliver, Fortunato said that he overturned his own guilty verdict based on two issues that he learned of after the trial: Father Dunn's lawyer had never represented a person charged with a capital felony, and dozens of people wrote letters saying that Father Dunn was too kind and gentle to commit rape.
Fortunato, quoting from some of the "80 or 90" letters that he received, said that a more-experienced lawyer would have tapped the "treasure trove" of information provided by Father Dunn's supporters by putting character witnesses on the stand to bolster his claim of innocence.
As Father Dunn, now a frail 76, left the courtroom, he was hugged by dozens of his supporters, some of them in tears. Sobs of "Oh, thank God, thank God" and "finally, some justice" resounded through the packed courtroom as Father Dunn pressed through a receiving line.
The woman who brought the rape charge, now a 36-year-old mother of four, cried as her husband quickly led her away.
Atty. Gen. Jeffrey B. Pine said he will petition the Supreme Court to overrule Fortunato and restore Father Dunn's conviction.
"This is a very difficult process for a victim," Pine said. "(She) gets that momentary high from a verdict and goes through the roller coaster of a low when that verdict is overruled by the very same judge."
When a marshal opened Father Dunn's handcuffs with an audible click, the priest extended his newly freed hand to Bruce Vealey, the lawyer whose competency was questioned by Fortunato.
"Bruce?" Father Dunn said, shaking Vealey's hand. "Thank you. You were wonderful."
Vealey stopped representing Father Dunn last month after Judge Fortunato raised questions about his competency. At yesterday's hearing, Vealey brought his own counsel, Stephen Famiglietti, who argued that Vealey's strategy throughout Dunn's trial was sound.
"Mr. Vealey would like nothing better than to see Father Dunn get a new trial because he firmly believes in his innocence," Famiglietti said. "But I'm here to defend (Vealey's) reputation."
Prosecutor David Prior argued that Vealey was one of the best lawyers he had ever faced in more than 100 criminal trials. Prior said that Vealey has extensive experience at all levels of the state's court system, as a prosecutor, a civil litigator and as a defense lawyer.
Prior noted that two women claimed that Father Dunn raped them, and Prior wanted a jury to hear both charges at once. But Vealey won a decision to separate the trials, and he won the first of Father Dunn's two cases when he convinced Fortunato that the state did not have enough evidence to bring the case to a jury.
Vealey "actually tried a felony case and succeeded in having it dismissed," Prior said. "He displayed a level of competence that I don't generally see when trying these cases."
Prior said he was not surprised by Vealey's decision to call no character witnesses, because once the defense raises character as an issue prosecutors can admit evidence of bad behavior that would otherwise be off limits.
But Fortunato said the letters that surfaced after the trial indicated that Vealey failed to draw on a wealth of information that could have created reasonable doubt that Father Dunn was capable of rape.
As the judge read excerpts from the letters in open court he revealed only the initials of the writers. "J.M. writes: He's gentle, kind and generous," Fortunato said. "P.B. wrote: He helped me through a very difficult divorce. . . . S.R.: Father Dunn is always respectful, kind, and caring."
Prior argued that Fortunato could not use those letters to throw out Father Dunn's conviction because they were not introduced as evidence during the trial.
Fortunato said, "The fact remains that there's an indication of the existence of evidence that was not followed up on."
"I disagree," said Prior. "I find myself in a situation where you are conceding the letters as evidence, and they're simply not evidence" that can be used to overturn the verdict.
"The reason I'm fighting so hard not to redo this trial is not because I'm not confident in the strength of the state's case, but I sincerely believe in the sensitivity of the victim's rights," Prior said. "The victim of a crime shall, as a matter of right, be treated by agents of the state with respect and dignity."
But Fortunato said that a judge's "overriding responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the trial process." And that was why he was granting the motion for a new trial.
Lucille S. Farr, the 50-year-old woman from California whose case was dismissed by Fortunato after she testified before a jury that Father Dunn had raped her 32 years ago, issued a statement to the media criticizing Fortunato's latest ruling.
"I am dismayed and at a loss to explain how justice was served by this decision," Farr wrote. "Is justice to be procured by 'fan mail' balloting?"
Outside the courthouse, Father Dunn declined to comment. His new lawyer, David L. Martin, read a statement: "We are pleased that the motion for a new trial has been granted. We are looking forward to a new trial and Father Dunn being found not guilty. Father Dunn is grateful to those who came forward with information supporting his innocence."
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