Sex, race, politics, money in Chester Co. sheriff sex lawsuit trial

Sex, race, money and politics were at the fore Monday in the sex-charged civil trial in Chester where a white female former deputy accuses Chester County’s first black sheriff of forced sex and retaliation.

Alex Underwood, elected sheriff in 2012, vehemently denies the allegations made by former Maj. Mary Anne Tolbert, who claims in 2013 she had sex with Underwood because she was in fear for her job.

Underwood sat silently all day in court, with several deputies and his wife, Magistrate Judge Angel Underwood, behind him in support of what Underwood and his lawyers say is a false story cooked up by Tolbert after she did not get appointed chief deputy.

Tolbert sat with her husband and also said nothing Monday.

On Tuesday, that will change as both are expected to testify – and as tawdry accusations are made public. Underwood’s lawyers say that dozens of cops will back his position that Tolbert made up the whole thing. Tolbert’s lawyers say she was a terrified woman forced into sex to keep her job.

Underwood, seeking re-election after three years in office where he became a national figure for his programs and helping a child hunter, is black. Tolbert is white.

Yet when the jury of 10 whites and 2 blacks was picked Monday in the trial at the Chester County Courthouse, Underwood’s lawyers accused Tolbert’s lawyers of deliberately striking black jurors.

Tolbert’s lawyers claimed that the blacks struck from potential jury service were supporters of Underwood either in 2012 or 2016 or both. Janet Rhodes, one of two lawyers for Tolbert, claimed race had no role in the strikes but Tolbert’s team had “information” that the black jurors struck were Underwood “supporters” despite all jurors telling the judge that they could be fair and had made no contributions or campaigned for Underwood.

Visiting Judge Dan Hall denied Underwood’s objection to the racial make-up of the jury, saying Underwood's lawyers had not proven the strikes were racially motivated.

In her opening statements to the jury of eight women and four men, one of Tolbert’s lawyers, Malissa Burnette, claimed Tolbert was “trapped” by Underwood into sex after he took office in early 2013 because she was afraid to lose her job. Tolbert fell into anxiety, depression and needed medical counseling and treatment, Burnette said, because she was at Underwood’s “mercy” because he was the powerful sheriff and her boss.

“He took advantage of his position,” Burnette claimed of Underwood.

But Underwood’s lawyers fired back, saying that Tolbert has no evidence to prove anything. They say Tolbert never made a criminal complaint against Underwood, yet she now seeks money. Tolbert made up the claims of forced sex then filed the lawsuit after being denied the chief deputy job, Underwood’s lawyers say.

“It didn’t happen,” said Kassi Sandifer, one of four lawyers representing Underwood and the sheriff’s office.

More, Underwood’s legal team said repeatedly that Underwood and deputies will testify that Tolbert’s allegations are “false.”

“Her version is different from everybody else,” said another of Underwood’s lawyers, James Davis.

And because the lawsuit has not been settled, it appears that Underwood wants his name and reputation cleared through the trial after three-plus years as sheriff. The trial comes in the midst of a primary election battle to keep his job. He faces not only a primary challenge in June, but if he prevails he faces a November general election fight.

There was no dispute in court Monday that Underwood and Tolbert had a consensual sexual relationship a decade ago when both were single. And that relationship ended amicably before both moved on to marriages to other people.

But now, a decade later, Tolbert claims she was forced into eight months of trysts in cars, strangers’ homes and other places to keep her job.

And Underwood, the sheriff, claims it is all a lie.

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