ORLEANS — The jury trial of William Stewart, the former Eastham restaurant owner accused of harassing and threatening his female employees, is scheduled for Sept. 28 in Orleans District Court, but the chances that it will take place next month appear to be remote.
Although six different women filed complaints with the Eastham police of Stewart’s inappropriately touching them and threatening them with rape and murder, only one, a Serbian woman here on a J-1 student work visa, actually followed through by pressing charges. She had already returned to Serbia when she made that decision. And she has thus far been unable to return to the U.S. to testify. Without her testimony, there can be no trial.
Stewart, 69, who lives in Eastham, was charged in November 2018 with assault and battery, accosting another person, and threatening to commit a crime. Beginning in the previous August, women employed at the now-defunct Stewart’s Seafood Restaurant & Tavern on Route 6 began to tell the police their allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
Stewart was brought in for questioning on Sept. 11, 2018. The police report states that he “essentially denied the allegations.” The recording of that interrogation, however, is missing. According to the police report, the “video camera recording system vendor was on site making repairs. Upon reviewing the video, we discovered that … the audio recording of the interview was missing due to the repairs being made.”
Stewart did not respond to the Independent’s requests for comment for this article.
The Barnstable County district attorney’s case against Stewart has been delayed 11 times since January 2019. Five of those delays were because the Covid-19 pandemic made it all but impossible to hold in-person jury trials.
The Serbian worker wrote to Eastham police after the charges were brought, informing them that she was worried about her ability to return to the U.S. She wrote that she did not know how to obtain permission to return to the U.S., given that she was no longer on her student J-1 visa.
One of the only possible ways for her to return is with a special U visa, which is “set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. The list of 29 crimes that qualify victims for this temporary visa includes sexual assault.
But Jose Vasquez, an immigration attorney in Mashpee, said that the application process for the U visa can be confusing, and that it can take applicants “a couple of years to get into the U.S. That’s the heart of the issue when it comes to this case. Who is given the ability to see things through?”
The pandemic has prevented speedy criminal trials not just on Cape Cod but throughout the country. In December 2020, the New York Times reported that the state and federal courts in New York City had completed only nine trials in nine months. The year before that, there had been 800 criminal trials in the city. Some courts in the U.S. have begun holding virtual jury trials — a solution that could potentially remedy the Stewart case situation.
But Seth Roman, a Hyannis criminal defense attorney, noted that defendants “have constitutional rights, including the right to confront your accuser. The defense attorney should have the ability to cross-examine the witness in person.”
According to a 2020 report from the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies, “for every 100 rapes and sexual assaults of teenage girls and women reported to police, only 18 lead to an arrest.” And, when an arrest is made, convictions in trials are rare. The report found that “less than one percent of rape and sexual assault complaints were resolved through a jury trial.”