By Lisa Redmond
WOBURN -- A Superior Court judge has overturned the aggravated-rape conviction of an Ayer man who has served seven years of a 35-to-40-year prison sentence after being convicted of the brutal rape of a woman using a "cat's paw" crowbar in 2006.
In a July 12 decision, Middlesex Superior Judge Jane Haggerty overturned David Coutu's 2007 jury conviction for aggravated rape, assault and battery causing serious bodily injury, home invasion, masked armed robbery, and burning personal property.
The decision came more than a year after an April 2012 motion hearing.
Haggerty, who was the trial judge, ordered a new trial after finding that Coutu's rights to a public trial were violated when his mother and one of his sisters were prohibited from entering the courtroom during the three-day jury selection.
Coutu's mother was subject to a sequestration order during the trial because it was unclear if she would testify, but that order did not apply to jury selection.
Ironically, in sentencing Coutu to 35 to 40 years in state prison, Haggerty said, "In my nine years on the bench, I have not seen a case of rape as brutal as this."
Defense attorney Amy Belger, who represents the 52-year-old Coutu, said the Middlesex District Attorney's Office now has 30 days from the receipt of the decision to decide if it will appeal the judge's ruling.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a statement, "We are reviewing the court's ruling and will be making a determination regarding the most appropriate course of action, including whether to pursue an appeal of the decision.
Meanwhile, Coutu remains behind bars pending the next court action.
Belger admits the decision to overturn the verdict is based on a "technical violation," but it's an opportunity to retry the case with advanced DNA testing that wasn't available in 2007 on the crowbar and the victim's fingernail scrapings, she said.
After a two-week trial in July 2007, a Lowell Superior Court jury found that Coutu, also known as David Hebert, used a crowbar during the early-morning hours of March 9, 2006, to tunnel his way from an empty apartment into the victim's apartment at 41 West Main St., in Ayer.
The jury heard that the victim awoke to find someone rifling through her drawers. When she screamed, the attacker beat her into unconsciousness with the crowbar, tied her to the bed with her own clothing, then used the crowbar to rape her. Police found the crowbar with the victim's DNA on it under Coutu's bed.
The victim testified during Coutu's trial that she didn't remember being raped with a crowbar, but doctors testified that she had massive tearing to her private parts consistent with that type of instrument.
The attacker then set a cardboard box on fire next to her apartment. The smoke set off the fire alarms, and emergency personnel found the woman in her apartment covered in blood.
The victim nearly died from the blood loss. Then she had a rare reaction to the cocktail of drugs doctors gave her in case she had contracted AIDS. She lost 98 percent of her top layer of skin.
Police focused on Coutu after being tipped off by Eleanor Lamb, Coutu's sister. They found the crowbar used in the attack under his bed in his apartment in a building nearby.
Belger said the state crime lab also took swabs of the victim's fingernails after the victim indicated she had scratched at her attacker. The new YSTR test can isolate male DNA, Belger said.
During the motion hearing in April 2012, prosecutor Bethany Stevens argued that the state crime lab indicates fingernail scrapings don't contain enough material for an accurate test. Belger said her forensic expert disagrees.
Belger also noted that Coutu, who is tall and stocky, has maintained that he could not have fit through the hole in the wall between the apartments.