by Danielle Eden Silva
In Department 14, the jury trial for the People v. Rodwin Yamsone Vibat began. Deputy Public Defender Emily Fisher represented Mr. Vibat and Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens represented the People.
Mr. Vibat is charged with six counts of sexual assault: two felonies and four misdemeanors. The victims were effectively unconscious during these assaults, as the alleged crimes were committed in a professional massage setting. The defendant had worked for several years as a massage therapist and multiple, but not all, clients of his complained about his inappropriate touching during their massage sessions.
Prior to speaking with the jury, Judge David Rosenberg looked over a motion from the People. This motion requested to add an amendment to the charges: penetration with the victims “unconscious,” or unaware of the situation, due to a professional setting. The defense argued that this case had been processed for nearly two years and to file this after the jury had been selected would be unfair to the defense. Attorney Fisher also argued that she would have selected the jury differently should this charge been present.
After the judge and the attorneys, with court reporter, spoke to each other in chambers, Judge Rosenberg stated that, while charges in sexual assault cases may be linked and amendments can be added liberally, they are not always added automatically. He found it valid to say that the defense would have asked different questions to choose the jury should this account have already
been included. The motion was denied due to the only other solutions being re-selecting a jury or calling a mistrial.
When the jury arrived, Judge Rosenberg gave them brief introductory instructions. They were informed by the clerk of the several counts against the defendant, all occurring in 2016.
Opening statements began with the prosecution.
Attorney Couzens prepared a thorough explanation of the court case to the jury, utilizing a Prezi presentation, which shared all of the information about the case. His main four points focused on the argument that the defendant’s clients had trusted him, he had picked his victims, he had known boundaries and he had broken them intentionally. After moving step by step through Mr. Vibat’s background, the experience of each witness, the future testimony of an expert testifying from UC Davis’ CARE (Center for Advocacy, Resources & Education) Program, the circumstances of the arrest, and video and audio evidence, Mr. Couzens requested the jury find Mr. Vibat guilty on all counts.
Ms. Fisher’s opening statement was pithy in contrast to the prosecution’s opening statement. The defense argued that August 12, 2016, was Mr. Vibat’s biggest mistake in his career and possibly his life. He had admitted and apologized. On several occasions when he was informed of inappropriate touching, Mr. Vibat stopped. The attorney noted that the jury should have an open mind, as the law had not yet been presented for them on what kind of crime they should look for. The defense shared that the law may present Mr. Vibat as innocent in some of these counts.
Following the opening statements, the first witness to appear was “PH.”
After swearing in, she was described to have nasal congestion and not from a cold. After identifying the defendant, PH shared she had been referred to Mr. Vibat by a fellow classmate in her French class. She noted she was going to be having a surgery on her right knee and wanted a massage to allow her muscles to be flexible and limber for the surgery. PH received two massages from Mr. Vibat, both in April of 2016 to the best of her recollection. Both full body massages definitely occurred before the surgery.
Her first massage had been a “ten out of ten” experience. No inappropriate touching had happened and the defendant worked on the right side of her right leg as she had requested.
The second massage occurred a week after the first. She again returned to the office of Mr. Vibat, located in the same building as a dance studio. Children had been practicing while she had received her massage. After asking her to go on her stomach and then her back, Mr. Vibat ran his hands down her ribs and moved up, performed two rotations around but not touching her chest, applied pressure from below her breasts, pinched the tips of her breasts, pulled his hands up, and released. He then told her he had finished.
PH shared she found the action inappropriate and had not asked for the tips of her breasts to be pulled. Additionally, she had never experienced this technique in her previous massages. At the time, PH had said nothing because of the presence of about 20 children in the dance school and not wanting to traumatize them. She had believed it was a “he said, she said” situation and, after the massage, Mr. Vibat acted like a “three-year-old who had done something bad.” The victim shared she got up, got dressed, gave him his money, and left.
The victim confided in her instructor who encouraged her to speak to the police. She would later learn from another classmate the masseur had been arrested and the police were looking for other victims. Knowing other people had experienced the same, she believed it to no longer be a “he said, she said” situation.
When reporting to the police, PH stated she did remember bringing up that he pulled her “nipples,” but she did not know which law enforcement she specifically spoke to. During cross-examination, the victim confirmed she did not remember leaving out the pinching the tips of her breasts during her testimony to them. She additionally did not return to the defendant because of his unprofessional touching. The prosecution’s redirect revealed the witness did not know what constituted a sex crime. The witness was then excused and the court given the lunch break.