July 6, 2009

NJ- Acquitted in court, Edison man faces new challenges as he rebuilds his life

7-6-2009 New Jersey:

Bruce Nealous knew he wasn't guilty.

His wife, children and friends believed he wasn't guilty.

Perhaps most importantly, a jury believed it, too.

But nearly a month after Nealous walked free from a Middlesex County courtroom -- vindicated in theory -- the 48-year-old Edison man is finding it difficult to repair a life that's come undone and a reputation in tatters.

Two years ago, Nealous was accused of one of the most stigmatized crimes in any society: the molestation of a child.

He spent a week behind bars before making bail. He lost his job as a chef at a school cafeteria and his position as a volunteer basketball coach. In one of the more difficult blows, child welfare officials temporarily ordered him to stay away from his own kids lest he pose a danger to them.

The experience, he said, made him feel "violated."

"It bothers me that my name is associated with this," said Nealous, a former Marine. "This attacks everything I hold near and dear. I want my name cleared."

No one keeps reliable statistics on how many people are acquitted at trial of sexually abusing children, but those who are cleared often share a common experience, said Kim Hart, executive director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center, an Ohio group that provided assistance to Nealous' lawyer during the trial.

In most cases, Hart said, the lives of the accused are irrevocably altered, marked by a lingering stain.

"The acquittal gives some of it back, but it's very seldom that they regain their reputation," Hart said. "In our society, we have no legal mechanism to get back what was lost."

For two decades, Nealous had been an executive chef for a company that provides food services to high schools and colleges. He held a second job as an adjunct professor at Hudson County Community College, teaching culinary arts. In his free time, he volunteered as a basketball coach at St. Peter the Apostle Elementary School in New Brunswick.

That all came crashing down on July 30, 2007, when he was charged with aggravated sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. A teenage boy -- one of Nealous' former players -- told his grandmother the coach had abused him repeatedly over a two-year period beginning in 2000, when the boy was 9. The grandmother went to police.

Steven Altman, Nealous' lawyer, said the teen made the accusation after seeing his former coach at South Brunswick High School, where the youth was a student. At the time, Nealous was the chef in the school's cafeteria.

Nealous said the allegation blind sided him.

"Till this day I'm still trying to figure out why this kid singled me out, why this happened to me," he said.

Over three hours of questioning by investigators from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, Nealous maintained his innocence.

"I said, 'You've got the wrong person,'" he said.

He was charged anyway, spending a week in the county jail before a friend arrived with bail money. When he emerged, he said, he felt numb, not quite able to wrap his mind around what had happened.

The state Division of Youth and Family Services, following protocol in cases of alleged abuse, insisted he stay away from his two children -- an order essentially barring him from his home -- until he underwent a psychological evaluation. Once he did, he was cleared to return.

Nealous also found he no longer had a job; his company suspended him pending the case's outcome.

The trial, in Superior Court in New Brunswick, lasted six weeks. On June 9, the jury took just 40 minutes to find him not guilty.

Altman, Nealous' lawyer, said the teen's allegations simply didn't stand up to scrutiny.

"We had people come in and pick apart his story," Altman said. "I don't know why the boy lied, but we had many of his former team members come in and testify for Bruce. I couldn't believe the outpouring of respect and love the St. Peter's community had for this man who was accused of sexually assaulting a young boy."

Sheree Pitchford, the Middlesex County assistant prosecutor who handled Nealous' case, said that in general, a jury's decision to acquit does not definitively prove a defendant's innocence, showing only that the state did not prove its case.

Sexual abuse charges, she added, are especially difficult to prosecute because they often pit the word of the accuser against the word of the defendant.

"It gets down to credibility," Pitchford said. "It just boils down to a he-said, she-said type of case. " We do an investigation. We prosecute based on the information we have. Juries want more than the victim's testimony in most of these cases. We prepare victims from the very beginning based on the limited proofs we have to realize there could be an acquittal."

Today, Nealous is trying to resume as normal a life as possible, but his future looks far different than it once did. Despite his acquittal, he said he was informed by his employer that he no longer has a job. He's now working as an apprentice painter to support his family.

"I was going to go to school and become an art teacher," Nealous said. "But I'm not. I don't trust kids."

He said it was the support of his wife, children and friends that got him through the last two years. He continues to rely on them now.

"I just want my name cleared," Nealous said. "I was accused of something I didn't do. I want people to know I'm innocent." ..Source.. by Sue Epstein/The Star-Ledger

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