During a sidebar conference on April 2 with Justice William Wetzel, who is presiding over the infamous “Internet torture” trial at State Supreme Court in lower Manhattan, the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Gail Heatherly, complained about a young woman in the courtroom.
“A spectator has been misbehaving,” the blond prosecutor told the judge. “We ask she be excluded from the court if she cannot control herself. The spectator makes noises, she mouths the words ‘You slut’ … One witness was visibly shaken in the hall after she came up and started screaming at him.”
“The court has observed that individual gesturing,” Justice Wetzel replied. “This is a public courtroom. My power is limited. The behavior of that individual is being monitored, and I have instructed the court officers that anyone who cannot control themselves will be asked to leave.”
“That individual” is the girlfriend of the defendant, Oliver Jovanovic, the 31-year-old Columbia University doctoral candidate in molecular biology who stands accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Barnard College student in November 1996 after a lengthy cyber-flirtation on the Internet. Mr. Jovanovic is being defended by Jack Litman, the well-known criminal defense attorney whose past clients include “preppy killer” Robert Chambers. But Mr. Jovanovic’s most impassioned defense surely comes from his girlfriend, an attractive, articulate 39-year-old Dutch-born woman whose daily presence at the trial she sees as an act of love in the face of a “legal travesty” presided over by a judge whose apparent scorn for the defense has led her to call him a “barbarian.” While she firmly denies mouthing the words “You slut” or misbehaving in any way in court, she makes no secret of her exasperation with the prosecutors and the claims of the 22-year-old woman who has accused the bespectacled Mr. Jovanovic, the son of Yugoslavian immigrants. She agreed to be interviewed by The Observer only if her last name was not used. Her first name is Marinza.
The role of the loyal courtroom girlfriend is a familiar one–remember the blond, impeccably dressed Amy Molitor standing stoically by Alex Kelly in his rape trials, and how Marv Albert’s fiancée Heather Faulkiner was never out of hand-holding range. But Marinza has been far from silent. “I’m a redhead, right!” she recently told The Observer . “And I’m from Holland. Everyone knows Dutch women are different from you uptight, repressed Americans! We’re not afraid to be confrontational!” Indeed. On a recent day in court, Marinza joined a group of reporters talking with Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, head of the Manhattan sex crimes unit, whose office brought the case against Mr. Jovanovic. “Why are you staring at me?” Ms. Fairstein asked Marinza. “No reason,” Marinza replied. Then she pointed at a pregnant reporter and said loudly, “How nice that she’s having a boy! I hope he doesn’t grow up to be falsely accused of rape by the D.A.”
Marinza’s loyalty to Mr. Jovanovic has made her well known to everyone involved in the trial. She has made an untold number of phone calls to Ms. Fairstein’s office; she called the two judges who preceded Justice Wetzel on the case until Mr. Litman asked her to stop; she continues to make late-night calls to journalists covering the trial in which she occasionally weeps inconsolably and denounces Justice Wetzel, who she says has overzealously applied New York’s rape shield law. That law prohibits the defense from entering evidence of an accuser’s sexual history, and in this case has forbidden the defense from referring to a number of reportedly explicit passages from e-mail the accuser sent to Mr. Jovanovic–passages that would, Marinza maintains, show that the young woman was a consenting participant in whatever went on in Mr. Jovanovic’s Washington Heights studio apartment. One such e-mail, reported the New York Post , suggested that the accuser was involved in a “sex slave” relationship with another man at the time of her date with Mr. Jovanovic. “When you read this e-mail, there is no doubt about [the accuser’s] sadomasochistic activities, and that she has lodged a false rape accusation against Oliver,” Marinza said. In her opinion, Mr. Jovanovic is being railroaded by a publicity-loving district attorney and a biased judge. If she doesn’t speak up–loudly–for the man she loves, who will? “I want to show the world that Oliver is basically a normal guy,” said Marinza.
Fear of Impostor
Like the accuser, Marinza first met Mr. Jovanovic in an America Online chat room. But if the accuser’s charges have served as a cautionary tale of the perils of Internet dating, Marinza’s story reads like a kind of postmodern romance, testament to the ability of soul mates to connect electronically in an alienated world.
Like many New York City singles, Marinza, a former computer programmer for Citibank, was lonely and despaired of meeting a mate. In early January 1997, she was living in Brooklyn, divorced for about a year after an nine-year marriage in California. She met lots of men but was finding it hard to meet a man she liked. “I was hoping to find a man who is sweet,” she said. Then she picked up the New York Post and saw a photo of the recently arrested Mr. Jovanovic.
“I saw that his eyes are really sweet and soft,” she said. “I started thinking, Damn–why can’t I meet a guy like him who’s getting a Ph.D.? I thought, This is insane! If a man like him has committed a horrible crime, where am I ever going to find a nice guy?” As for the things he allegedly did to his accuser–biting her breasts, pouring hot wax on her, sodomizing her with a baton, striking her, threatening to kill her–Marinza was skeptical. He had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, two master’s degrees from Columbia, he kept in shape by teaching karate in his spare time. He sounded like a good catch.
One evening a few weeks later, having just returned to her apartment from a class in computer programming, she signed on to America Online and entered a New York City chat room. A man in the chat room sent her an Instant Message.
“He asked, ‘Do you work in computers, biology or art?'” Marinza said. “I told him I worked in computers and biology, and I said, ‘Do we know each other?’ He said, ‘You may have heard of me in the papers. I’ve been accused of the cybercrime.’ I asked him, ‘Did you really do this?’ He said ‘No.'”
For the next two weeks, she and Mr. Jovanovic continued to chat via e-mail. During this time, Marinza says, she had only a single concern. “You know what I was really afraid of? I was afraid that he was an impostor.”
Marinza said she began pressuring Mr. Jovanovic for a face-to-face meeting, and that he only gave in after she e-mailed him a photo of herself. They met at Corner Billiards in Greenwich Village. They talked about molecular biology–Marinza had gotten her degree from San Jose State University in chemistry and molecular biology–and had follow-up dates. They soon fell into the rhythms of a fairly typical New York relationship. “Our usual routine was Saturday morning brunch, a stroll to the bookstore, browsing for books, and then to his place or mine, to read or do work,” she said. They played pool, went on skiing and scuba diving trips, watched movies–not limited to, she says, the sadomasochistic Japanese films that figure prominently in the 57 pages of Mr. Jovanovic’s cybercorrespondence with his accuser.
Asked whether her sex life with Mr. Jovanovic revolved around S&M, Marinza shrugged. “I’m not very interested in it,” she said, “but some women really like it–they don’t have to do any work.”
“There is a deep trust between us, a warmth,” said Marinza. “We don’t bitch at each other, we don’t have to lie or play games with each other.… Oliver is a wonderful lover … I remember nights where he held me, whispering sweet things in Slavic to me as I drifted off to sleep.”
Marinza said that Mr. Jovanovic’s parents–his mother, Sabina Jovanovic, is first violinist with the New York City Ballet orchestra, his father, Svetozar, is the chess coach at the Dalton School–were leery about meeting her. “They were terrified I would accuse him of another crime,” Marinza said. But she and Mrs. Jovanovic have become close friends–they happen to share a birthday. The two women took Mr. Jovanovic to Syms before the opening of the trial and helped him choose four new suits.
Naturally, much of the couple’s time was taken up by the case. “From the moment I read about his arrest in the New York Post , I knew this case was total bullshit,” she said. “I’m a molecular biologist, too. Biologists are very rational and motivated. Somebody who’s two weeks away from his Ph.D. in molecular biology isn’t going to throw his whole life away. It’s too much work. Besides, why kidnap someone in your own house to torture them and let them go!”
Before the trial, she decided that Mr. Jovanovic’s eyeglasses were too nerdy and chose a pair of tortoise-shell frames.
The trial, which began March 16, has disrupted the relationship. Marinza said they have been lucky to grab a few moments alone, but that the strain has made them closer. “Last night, I was making egg salad in the kitchen,” she said, “while holding a diatribe over something or other. He was lying on the couch, quietly listening while I was ranting on, when suddenly he walked over and, in mid-rant, softly said with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘Can I help you with your egg salad?’ I could not help but burst out in laughter.”
“We also don’t see each other because sometimes the stress was so much for me that I simply could not be with him,” Marinza said, “however much I wanted to be with him, because the pain and the anxiety of the whole experience were so intense and all-consuming that I had to sit through the pain by myself.
“I am beginning to realize that this is the kind of relationship I have been looking for, the kind of relationship I want with a man,” said Marinza. “Having been with Oliver has shown me that this is the way I want to interact with a man. It has opened my eyes to how it should be. I have always believed that this is the way it could be, and now I have found someone finally with whom I can have that type of relationship. Nothing can destroy this relationship … And it makes me cry when I realize the irony of it all, now that I have finally found someone with whom I have this wonderful relationship, we are forced to focus our minds on this insanity perpetuated upon us by the prosecutors and the judge.”
The case is expected to go to the jury the week of April 13. If Mr. Jovanovic is convicted of the charges against him–kidnapping, sodomy, aggravated sexual abuse and assault–he could face 25 years to life in prison. Most recently, to counter testimony of acquaintances of the accuser who said they saw marks on her body after the alleged attack, the defense has presented medical experts who have testified that photos and medical reports showed no bite marks, burns, or anything else to support the accuser’s claims of physical trauma.
Since the day the prosecutor, Ms. Heatherly, complained to Justice Wetzel about Marinza’s courtroom manner, she has become a model spectator, hands folded in her lap, her face impassive as she sits next to Mr. Jovanovic’s younger brother Adrian. Asked about the change, Marinza explains that, after that sidebar conference, Mr. Litman had told her that her presence was important in the courtroom and warned her to do nothing that could lead to her ejection.
“I didn’t know until that moment,” Marinza said, “that I was so important to the defense.”