Former Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for raping a 28-year-old subordinate while the two attended an Albany conference in 2017.
Jurors last month found Dirschberger guilty after a weeklong trial, during which the woman accused Dirschberger of raping her in her hotel room while she was intoxicated. Dirschberger testified the two engaged in consensual sex and that she invited him in.
The accuser gave a lengthy and emotional statement in Albany County Court on Friday about how her life has been torn apart by both the sexual assault and the trial. She described how she went from being a sheltered young woman with a dream job as a county social worker to becoming the victim of a rape that triggered months of mental guilt, shame, anxiety, panic attacks, weight loss and suicidal thoughts.
"My world crumbled. My personal life crumbled. My work life crumbled. I crumbled," she told the court in a prepared statement.
Dirschberger, 55, had been denied bail after his conviction on two felony counts, one count of third-degree rape and one count of a third-degree criminal sexual act. He faced up to four years in state prison on each count.
After his conviction, his children cried as Dirschberger, a former top administrator with the Gateway Longview youth services agency and a longtime college women's softball coach, was taken directly to jail.
He appeared in court Friday in handcuffs and gave no statement at the sentencing hearing upon the advice of his lawyer, James Knox. As reported by the Albany Times-Union, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer McCanney told McDonough that Dirschberger showed not "one drop of remorse" and still blames the victim.
*****BREAKING NEWS: Former Erie County commissioner of social services Albert Dirschberger sentenced to 5 years in prison for third-degree rape and third-degree criminal sex act (sodomy) for his attack on woman in Albany at December 2017 conference. pic.twitter.com/plkmg9Bw1o
— Robert Gavin (@RobertGavinTU) April 12, 2019
Knox responded that his client had led an exemplary life with dozens of years of public service. He noted that more than 50 people wrote on his behalf seeking leniency from the judge.
Despite the verdict, the accuser said she and her family still struggle with the aftermath.
"After nearly 15 months, justice was finally served," said Mary, who asked that only her first name be used. "My family and I cried tears of relief and joy. But the sad truth is, you never win a rape case."
She recounted having her husband hold her while she cried herself to sleep, or having him escort her to the bathroom in the dark because she was terrified to go alone. She talked about being put on wait lists for sexual trauma counseling and how she burst into tears and pleaded with a counselor who finally agreed to fit her in.
Dirschberger wasn't there for that, she said.
"He wasn’t the one who had to hold my hair back as I vomited and became ill because of my nerves as I prepared to face him at trial," she said.
The woman recounted how Dirschberger's lead defense lawyer "ridiculed, mocked and degraded" her on the witness stand, how he named her husband as a potential witness, preventing him from being able to support her during testimony and how his defense team provided information to Erie County suggesting she was "a liar."
"The pain and misery of having my life subjected to public opinion was heart-wrenching," she said. "I often found myself praying for my life to end to escape it."
She asked Albany County Court Judge Roger McDonough to show Dirschberger "as much mercy as he and his legal team showed me throughout this process."
Knox pointed out that prosecutors had offered a plea deal before the trial that included probation and no jail time, the Times-Union reported. McDonough told Dirschberger the man portrayed in the letters was at odds with the physical evidence at trial and the testimony and statements made by the victim.
McDonough sentenced Dirschberger to three years for the rape conviction and two years for the criminal sex act conviction. He also sentenced him to 10 years of post-release supervision.
Dirschberger's sentence does not end the matter. The woman also has a civil suit against both Dirschberger and Erie County.
In light of Dirschberger's conviction and sentence, her lawyers in the civil suit will ask for summary judgment against Dirschberger and follow up with further proceedings against the county, which stands accused of not taking action when the employee expressed discomfort with Dirschberger's repeated and unannounced visits to her office.
"I told people that I was uncomfortable around the defendant six months prior," she said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has said his administration does not tolerate sexual misconduct and took immediate action when it came to light that Dirschberger was being investigated by Albany police, demanding his resignation.
As part of her statement in court Friday, the employee accused the Erie County Attorney's Office of colluding with Dirschberger's defense team against her. Among other things, she cited paperwork she said a county attorney gave her that included a typed note in the margins from Dirschberger's defense team calling her a liar.
In response, the county said First Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker was present in court and received information from the defense because the case has obvious bearing on the civil suit filed against the county. The county denied that any document shared with the accuser included margin notes calling her a liar. Parker said she did not communicate with the victim during trial because it would have been legally improper to do so without the accuser's lawyer present.
Mary said she was glad to return to work in May of last year. Though she has had many supporters at work, she said, it's been an awkward transition.
"I was harassed by a colleague, who told me that I didn’t look like a rape victim, that no one believed me, and that I had to watch my back because people were following me," she said.
After sentencing, her husband said he believed justice had been done and that his wife will spend the rest of her life "rebuilding, recovering and healing."
Read victim's impact statement below: