William Estell was being prosecuted on multiple counts of forcible sodomy, sexual abuse, and aggravated sexual abuse of a child in two different Utah cases this year. He pleaded guilty, and expressed remorse in the courtroom, as documented by commentary in KSL news. Estell’s actions have met public dismay since 2008, when he was sentenced to 93 days in jail for a misdemeanor count of sexual battery. But the case most recently prosecuted by Utah attorneys to receive attention speculates that his perpetration of abuse could go back as many as 20 years.
Estell’s remorse seemed genuine enough to his sister (present on the day of his sentencing in court) but she worries about his safety and well-being in his 25-year prison sentence. “Prison isn’t a place for people with mental disabilities,” she said. 41-years-old, Estell is himself a victim of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of his father, leading to problems in his adult life and his own illegal actions. The sentencing judge commented on the situation before the court, saying, “This sentence is appropriate for the crime that has been committed, but I understand you were the victim. There was a tremendous breakdown in the system and that led to other victims.”
Utah attorneys prosecuting cases of sexual abuse and assault, especially of children, have a mountainous task ahead of them. Testimony from children is notoriously difficult to obtain – but not because of their traumatic experiences and sudden immersion into the monstrously intimidating adult world of courtrooms, gavels and technical names for private parts. Forced to recount their experience to obtain justice, children often shy away from the task that makes them feel re-traumatized and more vulnerable, which is something Estell knew well. The perpetrator selected his victims carefully, one of the Utah attorneys Coral Rose-Sanchez reported; he chose boys who spoke English as a second language, who were poor and whose parents knew little or nothing about navigating the legal system. With the deck stacked against them already, many of Estell’s victims didn’t even attempt to speak out or press charges, and for those who did, at least one had enough of a negative experience when law enforcement didn’t take the abuse report seriously that the family’s mistrust of the legal system has deepened. Another of Estell’s victims is in jail in another state for criminal activity, and still another struggles with depressive episodes around his sexual activity which he links to his abuse.
But it’s not only Estell’s victims that the system has failed to protect. As the judge acknowledged, it was Estell himself and his own prolonged experiences of sexual abuse as a child. Utah attorneys working in a court of law to right the wrongs of generations of abuse may find the situation more complex and more heartbreaking than anticipated, and society may find its own dark secrets continue to be hidden away in the mouths of children who are too traumatized to speak up. This is an age-old problem with no clear answers.