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Emotional testimony at Briard trial -- defense goes after alleged victim

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Good thing there was a box of tissues next to the witness stand -- Thursday was an emotional day of testimony at the Robert Briard sexual abuse trial, as the victim and main prosecution witness took the stand.

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It was also a day of parry and thrust between Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz and defense attorney Earl Gray, with repeated objections raised by both sides, and frequent lengthy conferences at the bench before Judge Peter Irvine.

At one point, Irvine sustained Fritz's objection that Gray was badgering the witness. On another occasion, the judge admonished Gray for not letting the witness attempt to answer before demanding a yes or no answer.

Robert Briard, 62, a well-known hog farmer in rural Frazee, is charged with first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly molesting a relative on two occasions. Once when she was eight and again when she was 14.

The victim, now a married woman in her early 30s, testified that Robert and Virginia Briard were very controlling of their eight children, and raised them in a very religious, very strict atmosphere.

The woman testified that on her eighth birthday, Briard had come in from doing chores, joined her on a couch in the unoccupied, darkened living room, and gently put a hand down her pants, touching her private parts, then moved his hand lower and penetrated her with a finger several times.

"He asked me if it felt good," she said.

"It must have been horrific, because I've never forgotten it."

She said Briard stopped when his wife, Virginia, came towards the living room from the kitchen.

Afterward her relationship with Briard, a close relative, continued as usual.

When she was 14, she testified that she was also touched in a sexual way when Briard visited her bedroom several times in one night after he had been at WE Fest.

"It was very , very awkward and icky," she said, crying. "I couldn't sleep that whole night."

"How did that make you feel?" Fritz asked.

"I've never forgotten it," she said simply.

"You just avoid at all costs any contact (with Briard). Hurry up and make breakfast, then it just gets over, that icky feeling, the next day, and then it's done."

She said she never talked about the incidents until she was an adult because of the family's dynamics.

"I think it's because we had a big Christian family, such a hypocritical façade, to be one person making those kind of problems, you just didn't..."

She said she never intended to reveal the secret, but it came out anyway, on March 6, 2006, when the victim, her mother and two other women in the family had gathered for a get-together where they drank some wine and talked.

But when one of the women started to share personal experiences of sexual abuse as a child, memories of what happened when she herself was 8 and 14 overcame the victim and she started crying and couldn't stop shaking.

Her statement fell like a bombshell, at first split the family, and ultimately left her isolated.

Three or four days after her secret came out, she testified that Robert Briard called her on the phone.

"He was crying," she said. "He said he was sorry and that he loved me -- I said I loved him -- and that he hoped to have a relationship with me sometime."

At the time the woman, her husband and Robert and Virginia Briard all went to the same church and the victim wanted them all to meet with the minister to try to work through their troubled history.

It never did happen as planned, and the woman felt like it was being "swept under the rug," and very angrily confronted Briard. She has had essentially no contact with him since.

Early this year, she begin work on a book about her experiences and her childhood.

"I sobbed for hours while I wrote that,' she told Fritz. "I saw my childhood for what it really was." It was "very much" a cathartic experience, she added. Although she stopped after about 30 pages.

"Are there times you wished you'd never told anyone?" Fritz asked.

"Yes," she said, in tears. "The entire year of '06 I wished it would have never come out. After more time and more counseling and more understanding, I would say it (telling the secret) was the best thing that ever happened to me. But not in '06."

The defense attorney, Gray, was all business in his cross examination. He asked sharp questions and often demanded yes or no answers -- leaving the woman flustered and stammering at times, until she finally started responding that she could not give a yes or no answer to certain questions.

Judge Irvine told her "that's acceptable. That's an answer."

Gray used the woman's partially-written book to great effect.

Because she had fictionalized in the book much of what happened on the day of the first molestation (she only remembers the event itself) Gray asked a number of questions about what was the truth and what was a "lie."

He also asked how much wine she had drunk "before your seizure, or whatever you call it," on the day she told her secret.

"We all had a glass and I probably had three sips from that glass," she replied.

Gray pointed to times over the years she had praised the Briard family, and how the woman and her family had been helped financially several times by the Briards, who provided $5,000 for a business start-up and another $7,000 short-term loan at one point.

They also provided land, housing and employment at various times over the years, Gray noted. She had also allowed the Briards to baby-sit her children when they were young, the woman testified.

She said she had a lot of bad dreams about the Briard family, and Robert Briard in particular, in 2006, and that she believed the family has "cult-like tendencies," because Robert and Virginia are so controlling.

The third eldest Briard child, Martha, also offered emotional testimony Thursday.

Though meek and soft-spoken on the stand, she was a hostile witness for the prosecution -- she had refused to meet with the county attorneys office prior to the trial. Fritz had to frequently direct her attention to past statements she had given to investigators to refresh her memory.

It was clear that she was torn between the alleged victim and the rest of her family. Martha had supported her after she told her secret, and had even written letters to all the Briard siblings.

Fritz used that letter to great effect.

One quote, for example, read "remember, this was all done to a little girl that was betrayed by (Robert Briard's) love."

And she wrote that she "knows dad is sorry for what he had done to her (the alleged victim)."

On Thursday, she said she still loved the alleged victim, but it was clear she no longer supports her.

The prosecution might say she fell into line with the rest of the family to support her father.

The defense would say she saw the light about the untruthfulness of the alleged victim, later than her siblings.

"I guess they figured her out before I did," she said.

Gray, being the good attorney he is, couldn't hear the statement and had it read back, perhaps for the benefit of the jury.

Under cross examination, Martha told Gray that the alleged victim "doesn't all the time tell the truth. She sometimes exaggerates because she likes attention."

She was not allowed to give the jury her opinion about whether the alleged victim was telling the truth or not about the sexual abuse.

Fritz objected and the judge agreed.

"No witness can testify as to the ultimate decision which is yours to decide," Judge Irvine told the jury.

The eldest Briard child, Juanita, testified briefly late in the afternoon, and will resume her testimony Friday morning.

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