A grand jury in St. Bernard Parish indicted Parish President David Peralta on Wednesday on a charge that he sexually battered his now-estranged wife on the day six months ago that she alleges he brutally raped her in their Meraux home.
The grand jury, which met on the case for most of the day, did not indict Peralta on a rape charge.
Peralta has publicly contended that the couple had engaged in “rough sex” that morning, her 49th birthday, at her request.
Sharon Schaefer Peralta, whom he dated for six years before they were married in March 2012, has denied his claim that she asked her husband to pretend to rape her that day, instead saying they weren’t even on speaking terms at the time.
Sharon Peralta was among the witnesses who appeared before the grand jury Wednesday. Sharon Williams, a St. Bernard Parish lawyer, and Pat Fanning, a New Orleans defense attorney and confidant of David Peralta, also were among those seen entering the grand jury room during the first two hours of the proceeding.
David Peralta was not present at the Chalmette courthouse, although he had several attorneys present in the building to monitor the process from outside the courtroom where the 11-member jury was meeting.
Sharon Peralta, who is now in divorce proceedings with her husband, in the fall accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her on Oct. 27. She took her complaint to the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, which passed the case along to the Louisiana State Police.
In a March interview, David Peralta denied the rape allegation, saying he and his wife frequently acted out “rape fantasies” while having sex. “That’s what she wanted. She asked for it,” he said.
Sharon Peralta denied his statement, contending that she was trying to leave him before that day. “It was my birthday, and we weren’t speaking,” she said. “I didn’t ask for it.”
After the State Police concluded their investigation, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office picked up the case. St. Bernard Parish District Attorney Jack Rowley recused his office in late December.
Under Louisiana law, sexual battery is described, in part, as “the intentional touching of the anus or genitals of the victim by the offender using any instrumentality or any part of the body of the offender.” It is a less serious crime than rape, but it is a felony and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
After the grand jury made its decision Wednesday evening, prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office met with the parish District Attorney’s Office to put together a warrant for Peralta’s arrest.
Stephen London, his attorney, said Peralta will turn himself in to authorities. He said he spoke with Peralta shortly after the indictment was handed up and his client was “shocked.”
“I’m very disappointed, and somewhat surprised,” London said.
The potential political repercussions of the indictment were unclear.
Guy McInnis, chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Council, said it was “too early at this time to know” what may happen, though he said he was “sure that there will be some discussion” on the council.
“I’m disappointed for citizens of our parish, our employees and for the two people involved,” he said. “It’s a no-win situation all the way around.”
Standing in front of the courthouse after the indictment was returned, Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell, who heads the public corruption and special prosecutions unit for his father’s office, acknowledged that the case has received much attention due to the nature of the allegations and David Peralta’s position as parish leader.
“A lot of the laundry has already been aired through the media, which is a little bit unusual, so today we let the grand jury hear all of that evidence,” he said.
Caldwell said the next step will be determining what judge will be appointed to handle the case.
When David Peralta filed for divorce last year, all five judges on the 34th Judicial District Court recused themselves from hearing the case, and Caldwell said he expects the same outcome this time. That means an ad hoc judge would have to be appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, possibly as soon as Thursday.
An arrest warrant then will be issued, and the appointed judge will determine the bail to be set, he said.
Caldwell defended the jury’s decision to indict David Peralta on a charge of sexual battery rather than the more serious charge of simple rape. “The grand jury reviewed all of the facts and the evidence, and they determined that the charge of sexual battery would be appropriate,” he said.
In media interviews, Sharon Peralta has provided photos and medical documents detailing injuries she allegedly suffered during the incident. A report from Interim LSU Hospital noted “signs of injury around the vagina” and a vaginal tear.
Tulane Law School professor Tania Tetlow, a former prosecutor who heads the school’s Domestic Violence Clinic, said the “he-said, she-said” nature of the case, in which a husband is accused of raping his spouse, can be difficult to prosecute.
She noted that the grand jury was charged only with “finding probable cause” that a crime was committed. “They’re not finding that somebody is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Both David and Sharon Peralta acknowledged in previous separate interviews with The New Orleans Advocate that they occasionally engaged in sexual role-playing that included elements of bondage.
Tetlow said it is “very difficult” for prosecutors to win convictions on rape allegations involving married couples “because juries often do not understand it to be a crime, or see it as something particularly harmful.”
“The public still has the attitude to an extraordinary degree that husbands have a right to rape their wives, and they do not understand the extraordinary harm that comes from being raped by somebody that you loved and trusted,” she said.
Tetlow suggested that the charge of sexual battery instead of simple rape could have been “some sort of compromise” among the six female and five male grand jurors.
“It is a strange charge, because my understanding is that Mr. Peralta is not contesting that there was sexual intercourse, and that is the difference between sexual battery and simple rape,” she said.
David Peralta, who did not return a request for comment Wednesday, has previously declared that he will run for re-election next year.