The commonwealth has said it will not pursue a prosecution of Richard Murray Coe, the Charlottesville man accused of raping and strangling a preteen girl, after more than two years of back-and-forth in court.
The family of the minor who brought allegations against Coe has also announced no intentions to pursue the case any further. Coe’s defense attorneys told The Daily Progress Coe does not intend to pursue civil action.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina Antony, who represented the minor and her family, filed a nolle prosequi motion July 13. While the motion does not exonerate Coe of the eight charges he faced in Charlottesville Circuit Court, it identifies the commonwealth’s intention to abandon the prosecution based on a lack of evidence that could be used during the trial, initially set for late October or early November.
“This conclusion does not alter the Commonwealth’s belief in the credible disclosures made by the victim,” Antony’s motion said. “However, the Commonwealth must also comply with its ethical duties and not pursue a prosecution for which, at this time, the Commonwealth cannot present evidence in court to sustain any criminal conviction.”
The allegations against Coe were first disclosed in 2020 when the minor was attending Greenbrier Academy for Girls, a now-closed “therapeutic boarding school” in West Virginia. The disclosures were in relation to incidents that allegedly occurred from 2012 to 2016.
Throughout the course of the trial, the defense alleged that several of the therapies Greenbrier used to treat the minor were “equivalent or akin to hypnosis,” and therefore inadmissible, which the commonwealth conceded after consulting experts in psychology and hypnotherapy, according to the motion.
Evidence derived from means akin to hypnosis cannot be used during a trial, according to precedent established in the 1990s.
As the prosecution did not have evidence of documented recollections prior to the events at Greenbrier, “criminal prosecution is not possible at this time,” the motion concluded.
“Given the current state of Virginia case law, we understand the Commonwealth’s decision to stop prosecution in this case,” the minor’s family said in a statement to The Daily Progress. “Even so, we are sickened, both for ourselves and for sexual assault victims across the state, by the tragic way that this law functionally silences the credible claims of those who most need to be heard.”
Coe’s defense team maintained the law’s reasoning is “not the least bit outdated or destructive.”
“Uncorroborated, ‘recovered’ memories are never enough to responsibly say someone is guilty of a crime, even when they don’t involve hypnosis,” Coe’s defense attorneys wrote to The Daily Progress in a statement. “If someone has to be hypnotized to recover a memory, it’s not a memory and it shouldn’t be admissible in a court of law.”
The minor’s testimonies were deemed credible by a grand jury October 2022, and earlier by Child Protective Services and Charlottesville police.
Coe’s defense attorneys said the grand jury, police and Child Protective Services “had no idea” about Greenbrier’s “hypnotic practices,” which the defense said it uncovered through an investigation.
Greenbrier has been the subject of multiple allegations of abuse and neglect, and its founder has faced million-dollar lawsuits over the practices at his facilities. Nationally, advocates have fought to address the “troubled teen industry” to close such “therapeutic boarding schools,” which the U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported for rampant negligence.
The family placed the minor at Greenbrier “precisely” because of her experience of abuse, they said in their statement. There, she underwent therapies that were “scientifically valid” and “personally beneficial.”
“This ruling is simply one more tragic demonstration of what survivors know all too well: that the laws of this state — and of many other states — make it incredibly difficult for survivors of childhood sexual assault to be vindicated in criminal proceedings,” the family said. “It is a tragedy and must be addressed.”
“This case should not deter anyone from coming forward with anything that was not the product of hypnosis,” the defense said. But, they added, “if someone has to be hypnotized to recover a memory, it’s not a memory.”
Tuesday morning, Judge Thomas Padrick acknowledged the case’s notoriety and highly unusual nature before granting the commonwealth’s motion to discontinue the prosecution.
“The prosecution’s decision to dismiss the charges was the right one and my family and friends wish the best for all parties moving forward,” Coe wrote to The Daily Progress in a statement. “This case has torn this community in half and my wife and I have prayed for all those affected on a regular basis.”