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Dart Award Winner

Rape in a Small Town

Fall 2002

School began before Labor Day, and Laura recalls that students were excited about going back.

School began before Labor Day, and Laura recalls that students were excited about going back.

They weren't really talking much about Nick Plante's approaching trial. But Laura couldn't concentrate on schoolwork.

It seemed to her mother that she was saving her energy "and getting ready for the fight." Laura began to panic and have anxiety attacks. About a week before the trial, she stopped going to school.

"I didn't want her to crack right before, and that's what it felt like was happening," her mother says.

The family focused inward. It's just their style, her parents say.

"You circle the wagons and you pull back into the center of the family group," Laura's father explains. "And you rely on each other."

* * * * * *

The first day of the trial, Oct. 2, charges against Nick were dismissed in the cases of the other two young women. Court records do not indicate why, and Deputy Atty. Gen. Gerald J. Coyne declined to give a reason.

Burrillville Police Lt. Kevin S. San Antonio said he thinks the charges were dropped because the young women didn't want to go through a trial.

Nick still faced the four charges in Laura's case: three counts of first-degree and one of second-degree sexual assault.

On that first day, Laura's mother was the only one in the family there for the proceedings. Her father couldn't be there because he was a potential witness. Her parents had decided that the trial was something her brothers didn't need to experience. And Laura waited in the office the attorney general maintains in the courthouse.

When Laura's mother walked into the courtroom, it was packed. The only seat she could get was in the back, where it was difficult to see.

Who are all these people? she thought.

Then she realized they were Nick's supporters, including friends from school.

"So the next day, we came back and we brought some family and we got there early," her mother says. "We didn't want to sit in the back row."

* * * * * *

After a five-day trial, the jury convicted Nick on all four charges.

"A lot of his own words did it," juror Anthony Rufo, a Central Falls auto mechanic, recalled in an interview. "Just the way he looked at us when he would give out a statement. He would look up like he was trying to recall and put something together quick. That's what caught him."

Rufo said the jury weighed all the evidence. That included the clothes Laura had worn, which she described exactly and which Nick described in conflicting ways. It also included the doctor's description of the abrasions on Laura and the penis piercings that he remembers were passed among the jurors.

"They looked like they could cause some pretty nasty scratches," Rufo said.

Under questioning by the prosecutor, Nick got "tripped up over his own words," Rufo said. "He changed a few of the statements a few times. He would say one thing, and then when he got cross-examined, it changed."

Laura's testimony at the trial remained consistent, Rufo said.

"And once we found out all the facts and got the statements from the witnesses and put them all together, this girl did actually get sexually assaulted. . . . From what we heard in those last two days, we didn't think it was consensual."

* * * * * *

"The symbol of justice for me was guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty," Laura says.

Now people would believe Nick had raped her, her family thought.

"Now you can go to school," her mother told her.

Laura went back the next day. But it was worse than ever.

Girls who had been her friends said Nick had never raped them, so he couldn't have raped her.

They and others she didn't even know called her names behind her back and to her face.

Slut. Bitch. Whore.

They told Laura she had ruined the best year of Nick's life — his senior year in high school.

Laura's parents stopped by the school that morning after going out for breakfast together.

"The whole school was in an uproar," her mother says. "You could feel it."

Not all the adults in the school were sympathetic to Laura, but most were, says Kelley, the school nurse.

"We tried to hold her up as much as possible," Kelley says. "Just what she had to deal with — the harassment and the bullying — it was brutal."

Laura didn't make it through the next day of school. And she didn't go back.

She started sleeping a lot. Her mother would come home on her lunch breaks to try to wake her but sometimes even after a full day's work, she'd come home to find Laura still hadn't gotten out of bed.

A doctor diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Once her parents realized she wasn't going back to school, the school sent a tutor to work with Laura at home.

Laura couldn't shake the feeling that she was always being noticed, talked about, judged. Whenever people looked at her, she felt they were thinking, There's the girl who was raped.

And now, Laura's younger brother became a target at school.

Boys on his basketball team stepped just around the corner, out of his sight.

"Bitch!" they screamed.

"Your sister's a slut!"

* * * * * *

Right after the trial, Nick's parents started knocking on doors. They visited local businesses. They went to the high school. They called friends and acquaintances.

Kevin and Janice Plante were asking for a public display of support, and that's what they got — 119 people wrote letters to Superior Court Judge Edward C. Clifton extolling Nick's character and praising his family.

Thirteen writers asked the judge to grant Nick a new trial, a motion Clifton denied on Oct. 25; dozens asked for leniency in sentencing.

About half of the writers specifically said they thought Nick was not guilty or there was not enough evidence to convict him.

In the 10 years she has known him, his friend Marissa Rodzen wrote, "he has always been very responsible, and respectful. There is no doubt in my mind that he is innocent. He has never been in trouble with the law before this."

An aunt, Beth Plante, wrote: "Nick does not have a violent bone in his body. My understanding of rape is that it is a crime of violence and control over another person. Why then were there no signs of violence?"

Some writers insisted that what had happened in Nick's room that day was consensual sex. Some offered opinions on how Laura had behaved, had not behaved, or should have behaved.

"If the town's people or high school students were to pass judgment on this case, than surely Nicholas Plante would be found innocent," wrote Donna Scotland of Harrisville. ". . . If the old saying, 'you can't rape the willing' held any truth, perhaps this trial would never have been."

An aunt and uncle of Nick's who said their daughter had been raped as a teen questioned the verdict and asked the judge for "maximum leniency and mercy."

"We know what our daughter suffered," they wrote. "Remarkably the plaintiff seemed absent of the symptoms associated with a rape. To us, this is a case of remorse following underage mutually consensual sex with someone other than one's boyfriend."

Reading the letters months later, Laura and her parents are stunned to see names of people her mother used to sit with at soccer games and acquaintances who in recent days had asked how the family was doing. But while making mental notes of those they won't talk about this with anymore, they are also shocked by how many of the letter-writers are strangers to them.

"I don't even know his aunts and uncles," Laura says. "How would anybody know anything about me?"

Her father reads aloud from a letter by Timothy P. Marcoux of Chepachet:

"Nick is not a cold-blooded killer; he has not beaten anyone or robbed anyone. I find it really hard to believe that he is the monster that he would have to be to get the verdict that he did."

His voice rising, Laura's father draws each word out for emphasis as he lets his anger out.

"They don't even see this as a crime," he says. "They don't see this as a crime. First of all, he did rob somebody of something. He robbed somebody of something that nobody, no money can take care of . . .

"He robbed somebody of who they were, who they were going to become."

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Kate Bramson

  • Kate Bramson, a 1993 graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, has been on the Providence Journal reporting staff since August, 2002. Prior to joining the Journal, she was the education writer for the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. From October, 1995 to Feburary, 1997, she was news editor for Budapest Week and The Budapest Sun in Hungary.

Bob Thayer

  • Bob Thayer is an award-winning feature photographer who has been on the Providence Journal staff since 1978. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Columbia School of Journalism.

Mimi Burkhardt

  • Mimi Burkhardt has served in several roles since joining the Providence Journal's copy desk in 1980. She has been night metro editor, an assistant city editor, and a projects editor. For the past three years she has been a training editor, working closely with the newspaper's two-year interns and other reporters on the state staff. It was in her role as a consultive editor she worked with Kate Bramson on the award-winning story.

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