Oak Bluffs businessman Saurabh Chhibber, a man one police officer called a dangerous predator, was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail Thursday, after he was convicted of sexual assault charges in Edgartown District Court.
A jury of five women and one man delivered guilty verdicts on two charges of indecent assault and battery, following a four-day trial before Associate Justice Lance Garth.
The sentencing sparked a tumultuous scene in the courtroom among Mr. Chhibber’s family and friends, which resulted in one woman receiving an immediate jail sentence for contempt of court.
Mr. Chhibber, 29, was accused of attacking a 19-year old acquaintance who was drinking heavily and distraught over a romantic rejection on August 3, 2009. According to testimony at the trial, and police reports, Mr. Chhibber guided the woman to a dark, deserted area in the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association grounds, pinned her down and sexually assaulted her.
Judge Garth sentenced Mr. Chhibber to 2.5 years in a house of correction and lifetime parole on the first charge of indecent assault. Judge Garth sentenced him to 2.5 years of incarceration on the second charge of indecent assault, but suspended that sentence for lifetime parole. Mr. Chhibber must register as a sex offender and submit a DNA sample to the state’s database. That sample could be used to investigate whether Mr. Chhibber has been involved in other crimes.
Mr. Chhibber took the witness stand in his own defense and denied all the allegations. He was the final witness in the trial. His attorney, Peter Lloyd, emphasized his voluntary testimony during his closing argument.
“It’s her word against his,” Mr. Lloyd said. “He wanted to talk to you, he wanted to tell you what happened.”
The defense attorney suggested the victim had a motive to lie. “What we have here is a 19-year-old girl trying to act like an adult,” Mr. Lloyd said. “She’s got a fake ID, she puts herself in a drinking situation, she wants to date someone older.”
In her closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Laura Marshard urged the jurors to stick to the facts.
“He took advantage of a young girl in distress,” Ms. Marshard said. “This is a real 19-year-old girl doing the best she can. There’s no rulebook to tell her what to do. Sure, maybe she should have marched across the street to the police station and knocked on the door and told them what happened. That’s easy for all of us to say, until we’re in that situation.”
Mr. Chhibber was originally charged with rape in this case. According to Ms. Marshard, a rape charge can have no final jurisdiction in district court. In order to be tried on rape charges, Ms. Marshard would have had to take the case to a grand jury, and if Mr. Chhibber were indicted, the case would be tried in Edgartown Superior Court. Since the case stayed in district court, the appropriate charges were indecent assault and battery, according to Ms. Marshard.
Oak Bluffs police, some of whom were involved in the investigation, and others who were not, followed the trial closely from the courtroom.
“We are very pleased with the outcome in this case,” Oak Bluffs Lieutenant Tim Williamson said in a statement. “The jurors absolutely got this one right, and Judge Garth gave Mr. Chhibber a just sentence given his crimes. The victim in this case was extremely strong throughout a very difficult process, I hope the verdict gives her some comfort and the closure she deserves.”
Following the conviction, one police officer who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said “a dangerous predator is off the street.”
This is not the first time Mr. Chhibber has faced sexual assault charges in Edgartown District Court. In 2002, he was arrested and charged with rape. On February 23, 2003, Mr. Chhibber consented to a plea agreement. The Commonwealth dismissed the rape charge, and Mr. Chhibber agreed the state had sufficient facts to prove indecent assault and battery. His case was continued without a finding for one year.
Ms. Marshard tried to get the previous charge admitted as evidence of “prior bad acts,” but that request was denied, and the jury considered only evidence from the latest case.
“I think some of Mr. Chhibber’s other victims may feel a sense of vindication with this verdict and feel that justice has finally been served,” Lt. Williamson said in his statement.
Mr. Chhibber owns Island Authentics, a souvenir and T-shirt store on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and another Island Authentics store on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.
Throughout the trial, members of Mr. Chhibber’s family, including his pregnant wife, sat with friends in the audience section behind the defense table. When the sentence was announced, and court officers handcuffed Mr. Chhibber, family members sobbed loudly, and pleaded with court officers not to take Mr. Chhibber away. As court officers tried to quiet the courtroom, Danielle Clermont, a family friend, got up approached the victim, who was sitting across the courtroom in the first row. Ms. Clermont leaned over the benches, pointed at the victim and yelled a stream of insults and epithets. Court Officer David Oliveira and Oak Bluffs police detective Nick Currelli took Ms. Clermont into custody, but as they began to take her out of the courtroom, Judge Lance asked the officers to bring her forward to the bar.
“I find you in contempt of court,” the judge said, “and sentence you to 20 days in the house of correction.”
Within minutes, detective Currelli was downstairs filling out paperwork, seeking an additional charge of intimidation of a witness, a felony, against Ms. Clermont.