The day after a young woman testified that she had endured multiple years of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's live-in boyfriend, Michael Airo, more than a decade ago, Airo himself took the same witness stand to deny her allegations in full.
Michael Airo, a former teacher at Palo Alto's Ohlone Elementary School, testified on Tuesday in the Palo Alto Courthouse that he never touched her inappropriately while she was showering in the bathroom at the home they shared in the early 2000s.
"If she was in the shower, I didn't go into the bathroom," he said.
The Weekly will refer to the woman by a pseudonym, Anne Doe, to protect her privacy.
Doe, now 26 years old, testified on Monday that from fifth grade through eighth grade, Airo entered the bathroom while she was showering "many times" and repeated a ritual: He would kiss on her on each breast, then each side of her stomach and then each of her buttocks. She would sometimes cross her arms to cover her body and he would pull her hands away to uncross them, she testified, reminding her "of the fact that he's my father" and that the behavior was "OK." Doe said she did not tell anyone about the alleged behavior at the time.
Doe's half sister also testified Monday to repeatedly confronting Airo about behaving inappropriately with Doe, including initiating a family meeting at which Doe's mother, half sister, Airo and Doe discussed him going into the bathroom when Doe was showering.
Airo denied the allegations and said he did not recall that family meeting or ever being accused of going into the bathroom while Doe was in the shower.
Airo's attorney, Michael Armstrong of Palo Alto firm Nolan, Armstrong & Barton, questioned Doe about the consistency of her memory of when the alleged abuse began. She testified during a preliminary hearing in 2016 that it began in sixth grade rather than fifth grade, as she said this week. Doe told Armstrong during his cross-examination that conversations with her half sister several months ago "brought memories back up" that caused her to change her testimony.
Where the prosecution has sought to portray Airo as a man inappropriately obsessed with being the father figure to a young girl, Airo described himself on Tuesday as a naive young man navigating his first romantic relationship. He first met Doe's mother when he was about 17 years old, working as a teacher's aide at an after-school program Doe attended in Palo Alto. They started dating when he was about 19 years old, he testified. Doe's mother is more than twice Airo's age.
He moved into a home in Palo Alto with Doe's mother, Doe and her half sister in 2002, two years after they first met. He soon assumed care-taking duties for Doe, picking her up from school and watching her for summers while her mother was working.
Airo said Doe's mother wanted him to be a father figure to Doe, whose biological father wasn't in the picture, and he tried his best to do so. He said he supported a decision for Doe to eventually take his last name.
He concurred with testimony from Doe, her half sister and mother that he was not publicly affectionate with Doe's mother. He said it was because he was uncomfortable and didn't know how to act romantically. The mother and daughters described him as abnormally affectionate, by contrast, with Doe. He did not deny holding Doe's hand in public or kissing her on the cheek or forehead but denied testimony that he had been in the same room while Doe changed her clothes and that he had kissed her on the lips.
Santa Clara County Prosecutor Lindsay Walsh opened her cross-examination of Airo by asking him to read out loud a letter he had written to Doe for her 10th birthday, about a year after they first met.
"Darling, you are more precious than the silver in Tinker Bell's wings. We go together like the moon and the stars," he wrote. "I love you the way the wind dances with the trees.
"This isn't an ordinary love we're talking about here," he continued. "This is a forever love." He signed the letter "from your loving father."
When Walsh asked him what he meant by "forever love," he responded: "I believe a father's love is forever."
The following year, when Airo was 20 years old, he addressed a Valentine's Day card "to my ALA," using the first letter of his last name in her initials, before she had changed her last name.
"Always be who you are, make yourself happy first and remember no matter what you do, how far you run, where you go, there is no escape from my love," he wrote in the pink card, entered into evidence on Tuesday. "It will always travel with you."
Doe's half sister and Doe's high school boyfriend testified for the prosecution on Monday. Her half sister testified to seeing Airo go into or come out of the bathroom while Doe was showering at least three times. She said she would periodically ask Doe if Airo was touching her inappropriately, and Doe would always say "no."
Doe told her half sister about the alleged abuse in 2013, after they unexpectedly saw Airo in a restaurant in Palo Alto, they both testified.
Doe's former boyfriend testified that Doe disclosed to him during high school that Airo had done something inappropriate to her years before but she said at the time that it wasn't sexual in nature.
Expert witnesses testify to child abuse
Both the prosecution and defense called their first expert witnesses on Tuesday to testify to child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome, a phenomenon the defense sought to discredit. Judge Allison Marston Danner instructed the jurors not to consider their testimony as evidence that Airo committed a crime but rather as context to help them evaluate Doe's conduct and "believability."
Roland Summit, a southern California psychiatrist, first coined child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome in a paper he published in 1983. He defined the syndrome through five categories: secrecy, helplessness; entrapment and accommodation; delayed, unconvincing disclosure; and retraction. The categories describe how victims of child sexual abuse often do not resist the abuse because of power dynamics in the relationship with an adult, often delay disclosing the abuse and may change their stories due to pressure or guilt.
"The accommodation syndrome is proposed as a simple and logical model for use by clinicians to improve understanding and acceptance of the child's position in the complex and controversial dynamics of sexual victimization," Summit wrote in 1983. "Application of the syndrome tends to challenge entrenched myths and prejudice, providing credibility and advocacy for the child within the home, the courts, and throughout the treatment process."
Blake Carmichael, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Davis' Child and Adolescent Abuse Resource and Evaluation Diagnostic and Treatment Center, testified for the prosecution that child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome is not a diagnosis but rather a set of concepts that provide context for a child's experience of sexual abuse. He testified that research conducted since Summit's original paper supports his original claims.
By contrast, William O'Donohue, a longtime clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, testified for the defense that Summit's paper is "junk science" that is false, misleading and inappropriate to use in court.
O'Donohue, who directs his university's Victims of Crime Treatment Center, co-authored a literature review of Summit's work that determined child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome is not a scientific theory grounded in research. O'Donohue noted that in a second article Summit published in the 1990s, he described child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome as his "clinical opinion" and a "pattern" rather than a diagnosable condition.
O'Donohue contrasted the syndrome with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, an established disorder that he said 40 to 60 percent of child victims of sexual abuse are diagnosed with.
O'Donohue agreed that most child sex-abuse victims don't disclose the misconduct right away, and when they do tell someone, the "core details" of their stories don't change.
O'Donohue — who has testified about 25 times as an expert witness, mostly for the defense in the state of California — was retained at a rate of $450 per hour to testify on Tuesday, he said. He estimated he would be paid about $7,000 total for his work on the case. He earns about $60,000 to $70,000 per year as an expert witness in criminal trials, he said.
Carmichael was not paid to testify.
Airo has pleaded not guilty to the four felony charges he faces: one count of continuous sexual abuse of a minor under the age of 14 and three counts of lewd or lascivious acts with the use of force, violence, duress, menace or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person.
Armstrong made a second attempt on Tuesday to dismiss the three latter accounts due to lack of evidence of duress. He did the same in 2016 under a different judge, arguing that the evidence doesn't support the allegation that Airo used force or violence to commit the alleged acts.
Danner denied Armstrong's motion and said there was "evidence of duress" based on Doe's testimony, Walsh wrote in an email to the Weekly. Armstrong said Danner denied the motion "because she believed there was enough evidence to let the jury decide."
Closing arguments in the trial are expected to take place this week.