BUTLER, Pa. — Senate candidate Sean Parnell’s contentious custody case ended Tuesday after three days of grueling testimony and sharp questions that seem certain to follow one of Pennsylvania’s top Republican contenders for the rest of his campaign.
The trial ended without an immediate ruling and with two conflicting narratives about alleged abuse — both delivered under oath.
It’s now up to Senior Judge James Arner to evaluate the competing claims and decide on custody of Parnell’s three children, aged 8 to 12, in a decision that might, in part, be viewed as a signal of how he views the accusations of violence and abuse leveled against Parnell by his estranged wife, Laurie Snell.
“I’ve taken a lot of notes, a lot of exhibits, and a lot of factors I’ve got to consider,” Arner told the courtroom after a third day of testimony. He said he would issue his decision “as soon as I can.”
The case drew national attention after Snell testified last week that Parnell choked her, pinned her down while screaming insults at her, and once left her along a highway while angrily telling her to “go get an abortion” when she was pregnant with their first child. She accused him of twice harming their children in fits of rage, once slapping a child so hard it left welts on their back and another time punching a closet door with such force it swung into another child’s face and left a bruise. And she said she was subjected to a steady stream of personal insults.
“There is a long history of rage and bad behavior that has inhibited his ability to co-parent,” said Snell’s attorney, Jill Sinatra, in a closing statement.
Parnell on Monday unequivocally denied the abuse accusations, saying he had “never” been violent toward his wife and children. His lawyer, Kristen Batson Eberle, added in closing Tuesday that since the couple’s split custody order was entered in April 2019 “there has not been one allegation” of even “a stitch” of abuse.
“He’s more than available. And not just available, he’s enthusiastic” about fatherhood, Eberle said.
Parnell, a decorated former Army Ranger endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has been one of the leading Republican candidates in a critical race that could decide control of the Senate. But he has been trailed for months by questions about his behavior in his acrimonious divorce. Those questions took on new, more detailed dimensions over the course of testimony last week, Monday, and Tuesday.
He, and his campaign, now await a court decision that could resonate beyond his personal life, and that, if it goes against him, could further undermine his public standing. Some Republicans are already worried about having him as their nominee with such accusations now out in the open.
Parnell and Snell are each seeking increased custody of their three children.
Parnell, in a statement Tuesday, called the last week “unquestionably the most trying in my young family’s life” and said being a father is “the greatest honor I have ever had.” Now that he has presented his case, he said, “I will not have anything further to say until the judge issues his ruling.”
While denying the physical abuse claims in previous testimony, Parnell did not directly respond to Snell’s testimony that he called her “a whore” and a “piece of s—.” Snell’s lawyers have submitted text messages showing Parnell also calling her “evil” and “a manipulative sociopath” during their split.
Snell said that such insults came “often” and that her lawyer said one of the couple’s children heard some of the epithets Parnell hurled.
Eberle, Parnell’s lawyer, said that what people say in the heat of a divorce and custody fight “are not indicative of their character” and that Parnell regrets his comments, though in her brief time for closing arguments she didn’t specify which comments she was referring to.
Earlier Tuesday, Parnell’s team called to the stand his girlfriend, Melanie Rawley, who said Parnell was “the best dad I’ve ever seen” and described how happy she is to raise two of her own young daughters around him. “He loves the kids, the kids love him.”
But she also testified that Parnell, 40, had told her he was separated from Snell when they began an initial romantic relationship in 2014 — when in fact they didn’t separate until four years later. Parnell engaged in a nine-month affair while they were still together, Snell testified.
Sinatra, meanwhile, attempted to undercut Parnell’s denials of the abuse accusations during a cross-examination Tuesday, his first time facing hostile questioning in the hearing.
Sinatra first challenged his insistence that a photo submitted to court, alleging to show the welts left on one of their children, was not actually his child. Displaying a poster-sized image of the photo, Sinatra pointed to the walls, baseboards, and carpet in the image, noting that they matched the child’s bedroom.
Parnell said he could not determine the colors because of the darkness of the photo and stuck to his testimony, saying, “that is not a picture” of his child.
In denying the claim involving the closet door, Sinatra challenged Parnell’s insistence that Snell “wasn’t even there.” Snell was in an office area attached to the couple’s master bedroom — without any wall separating the two areas, and had a clear line of sight to the closet, Sinatra said. Parnell countered that that meant she wasn’t in the bedroom, an assertion Sinatra scoffed at.
Parnell had also previously said that he did not punch the door but that one of their children got startled and bumped their head on the door themselves.
A nanny who previously worked for the couple, and who now works for Parnell and continues caring for the children, testified that she had never seen Parnell act violently or angrily toward the children, and had never seen the children act afraid of him.
“I told him all the time I thought he was doing a great job with them under the circumstances,” said the nanny, Lori McGoogan.
Snell’s team noted that Parnell is her employer.
Parnell’s lawyer on Monday challenged Snell’s credibility, noting that in at least two court filings related to the custody case, and after the alleged abuse incidents, she made no mention of violent conduct or physical abuse. And, Eberle pointed out, a judge heard the accusations of violence toward two of their children in 2018, when Snell sought a protection-from-abuse order. The judge then denied her request.
The three-day trial drew widespread attention to this small city in rural Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh. At least 10 journalists piled into small benches in a tight courtroom Monday and Tuesday. Television camerapeople waited outside the room.
Parnell on Tuesday exited through a door away from them.