Woman accused of seducing stepson to face third trial before a judge

A woman accused of sexually abusing her stepson more than 30 years ago will face a judge-alone trial despite prosecution calls that the case would be best heard by a jury.

Twice found guilty by juries and jailed and twice successful in having convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal, the woman is now preparing for another retrial, her third trial overall, after the County Court approved her bid to have her case heard by a judge only, without a jury.

The woman on Monday fronted the court, which was told her trial would start this month.

The Victorian government this year approved judge-alone trials after jury trials were suspended due to the coronavirus. There is no return date for jury trials.

The stepmother's case is the third judge-alone trial approved but the first where prosecutors opposed the application. The woman, 60, cannot be named so as not to identify her alleged victim. She is listed under the pseudonym Leona Ritchie.

Ms Ritchie is accused of abusing her stepson in the 1980s when she was in her mid-20s and he was in his early teens. She denies the alleged offences ever happened.

Previous court hearings have been told the woman’s husband – the alleged victim’s father – discovered the pair partly undressed and kissing on the couch one night, and asked who seduced whom. He sided with his partner over his son and asked that the boy's biological mother come and get him.

A jury in 2016 found the stepmother guilty of two counts of incest and two of gross indecency but the Court of Appeal quashed her convictions in 2017. Another jury found her guilty at retrial in 2018 but the Court of Appeal last year quashed her convictions, and ordered another retrial. Legal rulings formed the basis for the successful appeals.

Ms Ritchie has served two 11-month stints in jail, having been originally sentenced to serve six years and three months, and a non-parole period of three years and three months. She is now on bail.

She applied for a judge-only trial to be heard because of the potential for a long delay waiting for a jury trial. Police first charged her more than six years ago.

Prosecutors opposed her bid and argued a jury was best to decide cases where community standards were assessed and that the credibility of the complainant's evidence was a key consideration.

But judge Mark Gamble was satisfied it was in the interests of justice that the trial proceed before a judge, which meant it could start soon. He said the case had a "somewhat tortured history" and it was important the administration of justice continued in the pandemic.

The issue of delay was a "very powerful consideration" and pointed "very strongly" towards a judge-only trial, Judge Gamble ruled.

Judge Michael Bourke will hear the trial instead of a jury. It is expected the complainant's recorded evidence will be played to Judge Bourke so the man doesn't have to enter the witness box again.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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