CEDAR FALLS – “We, the jury, find the the defendant guilty on all three charges of third-degree sexual abuse and we, the jury, find the defendant guilty on one charge of misconduct with minors.” This is the verdict of a case being pursued since 2009.
I felt like I was in a law and order episode. It seemed almost surreal.
The sheriff stood up and grabbed his handcuffs, while the defendant, Paul Knudsen, shook his head; perhaps in disbelief but more with rejection of the jury’s verdict.
Knudsen was taken into custody immediately after being found guilty because starting that day, February 20, 2017, he would be serving the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.
The tiny, old and creaky courtroom in Grundy, Iowa was hot, suffocating and I felt like there wasn’t enough air around me; even though the windows were open with a cold, rainy fume blowing in constantly. This was my first experience in a courtroom, so maybe that was why I found it hard to breath. Or maybe it was the closing arguments. Hearing the allocations of both sides left me speechless, unable to think up my own opinion; I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on the jury. Or to be one of the victims.
I only sat through the closing arguments, so I didn’t hear any victim or witness testimonials. But allow me to sum up what I did hear that day, and how the verdict came to be.
2A District Court Judge Joel Dalrymple was in control of the courtroom throughout the whole case, which was going on the fourth but final day on that rainy Monday in February.
This case is to be formally known as State vs. Paul Knudsen and there are two victims; a he and a she.
Judge Dalrymple first gave and read instructions to the jury of how they should deliberate and come to a verdict for a case such as this one; a sexual abuse. Prosecuting for State was Assistant Attorney General Keisha Cretsinger and Grundy County Attorney Erika Allen. The defense attorney was Troy Powell and Michael Bandy.
The closing arguments started off with the prosecuting party. Cretsinger stepped forward and put on a slide show for the jury to see.
“Two children were perpetrated. She was 14 and he was 13. She was a member of Paul’s household. And so was he. Step father. That’s what he was to them,” Cretsinger began.
Cretsinger detailed that before she was even 14 years-old, Knudsen had sexual intercourse with her. Cretsinger detailed how Knudsen forced him to take off his clothes and force him to watch her give Knudsen oral sex.
“These children go to school, they’re desperately trying to live. But, as he testified, it was happening whenever he [Knudsen] decided,’ Cretsinger said.
She went on detailing another act.
“Mom was working. She needed a ride to cheerleading practice and he [Knudsen] would give her one, only if she would perform oral sex for him on the way there,” Cretsinger paused.
Is it getting hotter in the courtroom? Where did all the air go? I can feel, and smell, the rainy breeze still but for some reason I feel as though I’m stuck in a sauna.
Cretsinger continued forward with her argument.
“These kids have spent the last 2 years trying to forget the facts,” she intensely stared into the pool of jury members. “They told you the facts at the time they remember they were asked. They don’t remember dates because they’re trying to forget. Their mom is financially dependent on Paul [Knudsen] and has two more sons to raise. So, when you’re going over the case, ask yourself, who’s got motive?”
She gave the jury one last stare before clicking to the last slide; it read, PAUL KNUDSEN IS GUILTY OF ALL CHARGES.
“Thank you,” Cretsinger said as she found her way back to her seat; Knudsen’s eyes never looking away from the jury.
My palms are clammy. I can barely keep hold of my pen.
Bandy straightens his notes and walks right up to the jury. Yes, I’ve seen this before in a law and order episode; real life is much less glamorous.
“We don’t have some fancy power-point like State. The defendant doesn’t even have to prove anything,” Bandy began. “You have to sit here and take on board what the witnesses said. If this were an assault case, or an O.W.I [Operating While Intoxicated] case, the law requires you to question the witness recounts. This is no different just because it’s sexual abuse and with children.”
Bandy’s defense argument started picking apart the credibility of the witnesses; in this case, the witnesses were the victims.
“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember the lies. The witnesses couldn’t remember details. For example, he didn’t remember he said he had anal sex with her. That’s not a small detail, if you’re telling the truth you’re not going to forget,” Bandy went on without flinching; Knudsen still never looking at anything but the jury. My pen is slipping out of my fingers with every word I write.
Talking frequently with his hands, Bandy went on about how there was no investigation done by the State.
“State did nothing, they did absolutely nothing and that’s not the fault of the defendant; that’s just a poor investigation. They could’ve had D.C.I [Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation], but they didn’t even call D.C.I. The investigation could’ve provided evidence of actual pornographic videos, but where are they? And sex toys, there was a lot of talk of those, but where are they? Do they even exist? We don’t think the kids are credible. We know there was no investigation.”
Bandy pointed out that the victims might’ve had motive to lie simply to get Knudsen out of the house.
Knudsen’s eyes stared intently and directly at the jury at this point; I don’t even think he was blinking.
“If you look at the facts and not have them colored by your emotion, you’ll find Paul [Knudsen] not guilty,” Bandy emphasized this seemingly triumphant conclusion.
“Thank you,” he said, as he walked back over to his seat, never once meeting eyes with Knudsen but instead smirking at the State prosecution.
My pen slipped out of my hand and in the split second of silence, it hit the ground and Knudsen’s eyes shifted over his shoulder towards the audience; towards me.
I quickly looked down and fumbled to pick it up with my sweaty hands. The ground smelled like dust and sent a tickle down my throat. I sat up. Our eyes meet. I can’t breathe.
I looked down at my notes. Chicken scratch. Should I look up again? I hear someone clear their throat.
It should be safe.
I watch Cretsinger step forward once again to her computer, putting on another slideshow. Knudsen rested his eyes back to staring directly at the jury.
I let out an uneven, bumpy sigh trying to catch my breath.
“These kids were questioned by 4 adults, in the presence of their offender, the media, and anyone else curious to know about their lives. They’re embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, trying to forget; kids are good at hiding sexual abuse because they want to appear normal, fit in that box,” Cretsinger clicked the computer, next slide.
“There was no reason for either of these kids to one forward but one,” Cretsinger clicked the computer once again and read the words the power-point displayed; PAUL KNUDSEN IS GUILTY OF ALL CHARGES.
“Thank you,” she said as she walked back to her seat, smirking to the defense attorney before sitting down.
I go to take another breath, still can’t catch it. I can feel the goosebumps and chills overwhelming every part of my body except for my sweaty hands. The jury all stands up and Judge Dalrymple dismisses them to the deliberation room.
That’s when the remainder of the courtroom got dismissed. Finally, I get to step out of that suffocating room and into the hallway where I can breathe.
I don’t know what it was like to be in that deliberation room that day. But based on how quickly they came to the verdict, I can only imagine it was a very cooperative environment.
During that time, however, Judge Dalrymple took me to an office space behind the courtroom. Walking back, there were rows of bookshelves that looked like they haven’t been touched in decades and it brought the tickle back to my throat.
He told me he wanted me to have background knowledge for my school project and answer any of my questions; not that I could muster up any, through, because I could barely breath again.
“This case is very unique in that these children were victims of an abuse by their oldest brother, and based upon that testimony, he was convicted. In that case it was revealed their stepfather was abusing them and that’s why we’re here today,” Judge Dalrymple informed me.
It was at that moment when I realized just how surreal it was that I witnessed this case. This was a life I never knew was reality to anyone; this was something that only happened on TV, right?
“Judge, the jury came to a verdict,” the blonde haired clerk lady said as she stood in the doorway.
Judge Dalrymple looked at his watch. “Already?” He said. Then he looked back at me. “Do you have any questions? That was quicker than I thought.”
I shook my head no. I still couldn’t think of any questions, nor could I think of how to get any air to my lungs.
“Alright then, I’ll see you out there,” Judge Dalrymple held his hand out forward and I prayed that my palms weren’t too noticeably clammy and that my legs would work properly enough to not run into a wall on my way out.
I found my way back into the suffocating courtroom, without running into any walls, and sat back down in the empty pew from before.
On that rainy February day the verdict was heard loud and clear. “Guilty” meant the rest of a life without privileges for Paul Knudsen. “Guilty” meant justice for them. For everyone who was present it meant a memory that would be lodged so deep, like a bullet, that no surgery can reach it.
“What matters is not what we endure, but also what kind of misery it is, where it comes from. The worst is the kind that’s imposed by others with malicious intent. That’s the kind from which no one recovers.” -Ruth Kluger (author)