- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NEW HAVEN, Conn. | A Marriott hotel abandoned a defense Monday in a lawsuit brought by a Connecticut woman raped at gunpoint in front of her young children: that she was careless and partially at fault.

The withdrawal followed days of backlash against Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc. after the hotel filed papers saying the victim “failed to exercise due care for her own safety and the safety of her children and proper use of her senses and facilities,” even though her attacker was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The woman also accused Marriott in June of indirectly exposing her and her children’s identity by seeking subpoenas for the depositions of her pilates instructor, friends and tennis partners, a house cleaner and a baby sitter.

“This was done to expose the identities of the Doe family in their community so as to intimidate them from pursuing this case, pure and simple,” attorneys Paul Slager and Ernest Teitell wrote in court papers.

Lawyers needed to determine the effect of the crime on the victim, said Marriott attorney Donald Derrico, noting that the subpoenas haven’t been issued. The hotel will decide whom to subpoena on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“Her name was never, ever, ever disclosed to anyone,” Mr. Derrico said.

Marriott issued a statement Friday that it was “profoundly sorry that such a terrible thing happened to the victim of this violent crime” in its parking garage. The chain said the situation has “created a mistaken impression that Marriott lacks respect” for victims of violent crimes.

Critics said the blame-the-victim defense wasn’t softened by the apology.

“I thought it was despicable, disgusting and all too common,” said Jessica Mindlin, a national director for the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston. “It’s like a second rape.”

The defense claim was made before attorneys finished taking the victim’s deposition, Mr. Derrico said, “so as not to waive a potential defense.” He said Marriott officials asked his law firm to withdraw the claim in July, but that his associate had not done so because his mother died.

“We’re not accusing her of anything,” Mr. Derrico said.

Court papers do not indicate how the hotel planned to argue that the woman was careless, and Mr. Derrico declined to elaborate.

Prosecutors said Gary Fricker assaulted the 40-year-old woman in her minivan at the Marriott Hotel & Spa in October 2006 in Stamford in front of her children, both younger than 7. Fricker, 56, is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, risk of injury to a minor and robbery.

Her attorney read a letter in court at the time in which she said that frightening situations confront her every day.

“Right after the assault, I became a zombie,” the woman wrote. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t drive a car, I couldn’t hold a conversation. I shut myself inside the house, spent a lot of time in the shower, first to wash myself clean and then later to have a place to cry freely, and I jumped every time the telephone rang.”

Her lawsuit contends the hotel failed to take adequate security precautions, monitor the parking lot and train employees in basic security techniques. The hotel also should have known about other sexual assaults before her rape, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual assault.

Women’s advocates said Marriott’s handling of the case is every rape victim’s nightmare come true, and a major reason why rape remains one of the most underreported crimes, despite changes such as shield laws that make a victim’s sexual history irrelevant.

“The fear of being blamed for being raped is one of the most common reasons that victims of sexual assault don’t come forward,” said Nancy Kushins, executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services.

Defenses that blame the victim to some extent are not uncommon, as insurance companies try to minimize their losses. But Jim Nugent, chairman of the litigation section of the Connecticut Bar Association, said doing so in this case would be odd, given the especially horrific nature of a rape witnessed by the victim’s children.

“It’s just not going to sit well with a jury,” Mr. Nugent said. “How in the world could this poor woman contribute to that?”

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