Chester sheriff faces sex accusations in court
After three days of court in Chester County filled with sex and politics, money and race, the trial over allegations a former deputy made against the sheriff of coerced sex will go to the jury Thursday.
Only one question remains unanswered.
The jury of 12 people will decide if they believe Alex Underwood, the sheriff since election in 2012 who is running again in a contested primary.
Or the accuser, Mary Anne Tolbert, who claims at least 18 salacious trysts she says Underwood forced on her for eight months in 2013 as she feared for her job.
Underwood denied every allegation in direct and plain language in testimony Wednesday.
Both sides rested their cases Wednesday. By lunchtime Thursday, after closing arguments from lawyers, the jury chooses.
“Credibility is a privilege of the jury,” were the words of visiting Judge Dan Hall from York in not granting Underwood’s lawyers’ request for a dismissal of the lawsuit.
Translation: Jurors must decide who they believe told the truth on the witness stand. Underwood or Tolbert.
There is no dispute that Underwood and Tolbert, more than a decade ago, had a consensual sexual relationship when neither was married. Tolbert claims, however, that after Underwood took office in 2013, he began sexual acts.
Underwood denies that. It never happened, he testified Wednesday. More, he had promoted Tolbert and testified he got her help in 2009 when Tolbert was threatening suicide.
He sat in the witness chair, eyes straight, when asked directly by his lawyer, “Have you, since you became sheriff, had sex with Mary Anne Tolbert?
“No, I have not," Underwood responded.
Further, Underwood denied any improper touching of himself or Tolbert as she had alleged, or any trips Tolbert said he took her on for purposes of sexual encounters.
“Did you ever take Mary Anne Tolbert to a hunt club, someone’s house or anywhere else while you were checking property?” Underwood's lawyer asked him.
“No, sir, I did not," Underwood replied.
Testimony showed Tolbert has received mental health treatment at least since 2009. Underwood’s lawyers said in court she suffers from “mental illness.”
Tolbert’s testimony was that Underwood trapped her – that he was the boss and she felt powerless and weak.
Underwood’s lawyers said she is on a blackmail mission after being passed over for the chief deputy job under Underwood’s command and that she did not ask for a formal outside police investigation in what Tolbert described in court as “rape.”
Underwood testified that the day he announced someone else got the chief job in 2014, Tolbert ran from the room. Just weeks later, he was informed she had contacted Chester County officials alleging the sexual misconduct. Underwood testified he was hurt by the allegations after he had promoted her to a job on command staff and before that point had trusted her.
“I was kind of upset, a little bit mad ...,” Underwood testified.
Under cross-examination from Tolbert’s lawyer, Underwood testified he held no formal interviews for the chief deputy job but wanted someone who had both experience and respect of other officers.
Tolbert’s lawyers also grilled Underwood on how, as an investigator, he would know that criminals would go to great lengths to avoid detection. Tolbert alleged Underwood took sexual encounter evidence with him after each tryst.
Tolbert’s lawyers also have tried to drive home that Underwood had keys to places where Tolbert claimed sexual liaisons took place and that Tolbert knew the layouts of those homes from those visits.
But Underwood testified that he never took Tolbert to any of those places. He said he had keys and checked properties when asked by citizens.
One of the homes Tolbert claims was a spot for a liaison was the home of former Chester police chief Andre Williams – a former close friend of Underwood who now is running against Underwood in the June primary race for sheriff. Before the allegations came to light, Underwood and Williams, now security chief of Chester County schools, were close enough that Underwood loaned Williams furniture for his home and Williams gave Underwood a key to his home to check on it.
Williams testified he has no knowledge about alleged sexual encounters between others at his home and does not know if what Tolbert claims is true or not. He also testified that politics and the allegations had nothing to do with him now having split from a friendship with Underwood.
So Thursday, what appears to be more crucial than anything for the jury is simply the testimony from Tolbert and Underwood.
Who will the jury believe?