CONTENT WARNING: This article refers to a childhood sexual assault.
The man who claimed he was asleep when he sexually assaulted his niece almost 40 years ago has been found guilty of committing the abuse.
Jurors began deliberating on Tuesday (5 September) afternoon before returning to the courtroom about 24 hours later and announcing they had found him guilty of two charges, having sexual intercourse with and committing an act of indecency on a child aged between 10 and 16.
His supporters in the courtroom gallery began to cry when the verdicts were announced and were later seen hugging him.
During the trial, jurors heard Mr Van de Zandt did not dispute that the sexual acts occurred but claimed he had been asleep at the time.
Prosecutor Caitlin Diggins said the main issue for the trial was whether he had been acting deliberately and intentionally, while his lawyer, Legal Aid’s Edward Chen, said jurors had to acquit him if they accepted he had been asleep.
Mr Van de Zandt told jurors he had been a manager of Mario’s theatre restaurant in 1986 and had been working up to 16 hours each day in the two weeks before the Food and Wine Frolic festival in March of that year.
On the day of the incident, he claimed he woke up around 5 am, worked at the festival where his team served 6000 people in six hours, then went to sleep very soon after he arrived home. His next memory was getting woken up by his wife.
However, the then-15-year-old complainant said she had stayed the night following the festival and remembered being in bed with her aunt and uncle that evening, drinking tea and chatting about the day, before falling asleep.
She woke to the then-34-year-old Mr Van de Zandt touching her before he digitally raped and sexually assaulted her. The court heard she had been “frozen in fear”.
Ms Diggins claimed that as soon as she resisted him, he stopped and said, “Sorry”.
“The accused has never denied doing this … until now,” she claimed.
It is alleged that in a later meeting, he told the complainant, “I thought you wanted it because you used to get undressed in front of me”. She said she replied, “You’re my f-ing uncle”.
But Mr Van de Zandt claimed he had never said these words, nor had he ever had a sexual interest in the complainant.
During closing addresses, Ms Diggins said the claim he had been asleep didn’t have “the ring of truth”, while Mr Chen argued the complainant was not a reliable witness and there were inconsistencies in her memories.
He called his client “an ordinary, hardworking Australian” who had taken the stand to testify himself earlier in the week because he wanted jurors to hear from his own voice that “he is innocent”.
After the verdicts were delivered, Chief Justice Lucy McCallum thanked the jurors for their hard work and attention in the case before discharging them.
She continued Mr Van de Zandt’s bail, ordered a pre-sentence report and adjourned for the sentencing proceedings to begin in November.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact 1800RESPECT, the national domestic and sexual violence support service, by calling 1800 737 732 or by visiting 1800RESPECT.
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