On Monday morning in Martinez, 35-year-old Ralph Dell was charged with sexually abusing his niece when she was 9 years old. Dell's defense attorney did not dispute that the abuse took place, but instead told the jury he would prove his client—who has a history of unwanted sexual behavior while sleeping—was actually asleep when it happened. The victim, now 11 years old, also took the witness stand.
During the incident, victim Jane Doe was at Dell's home for a sleepover with his daughter when Dell apparently fell asleep and started giving the girls back rubs. The Contra Costa Times describes the scene from the courtroom:
The two girls, described as "best friends" by prosecutor Chad Mahalich, had played, eaten pizza for dinner and were lying on blankets in a common room watching TV late that night when Dell, Mahalich said, rubbed his daughter's back to help her fall asleep.
"Then he asks if (Jane Doe) would like her back rubbed," Mahalich told the jury. "She says no, but he rubs her back anyway."
When the girl flipped from her stomach to her back, the prosecutor said, Dell slipped his hand inside her underwear.
"What happened to Jane Doe is not in dispute," defense attorney Ernest Castillo said. "What this case is about is intent."
Castillo claims his client was suddenly "woke up to the most gut-wrenching moment of his life," and that Dell was, "startled and confused, didn't understand what happened or how it happened. He began to freak out."
The 11-year-old victim confirmed the story when she took the witness stand, telling the jury that she started to "tear up" and that Dell had asked her, "Does that hurt?" Later, she also told the jury that Dell "looked surprised at what he had done."
Dell has been charged with sexual penetration of a child 10 years old or younger, and lewd and lascivious acts. The case continues Tuesday and Castillo has told the jury that he plans to prove his client was asleep by calling in a few key witnesses including a medical expert, Dell's brother and Dell's ex-wife, who—according to Castillo—used to wake up to find Dell "engaged in sexual behavior with her while he was asleep."