Sexual assault convictions in Eagle County
Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute – to win – local attorneys say.
In the past two years, for example, Eagle County juries have come back with two convictions and three acquittals in sexual assault cases that went to trial.
“Sexual assault cases are hard to prosecute because of the dynamics,” says District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who is in charge of the prosecution on the case of Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “And that is because of the embarrassment of the victims and the myths people have on sexual assault issues.”
“Less clear-cut evidence’
Although it’s common for district attorney’s offices to win between 80 and 90 percent of the cases they bring to trial, that percentage drops substantially in sexual assault cases, says former Eagle County prosecutor Dave Lugert, a veteran with 20 years as a prosecutor in Colorado.
“That’s because there’s less clear-cut evidence available to the jury,” says Lugert, who now has a private practice. “Sexual assault cases are difficult to prove.”
Of 20 crimes brought to trial from January 2001 to June 2003 in Eagle County, five were sexual assault cases. In two of those cases the defendants were found guilty, while three were acquitted. By comparison, juries convicted defendants in 12 of the 15 remaining trials. One was a mistrial.
“Sexual assault crime cases are among the most difficult cases to win,” Lugert said. “They’re hard to prosecute because there is so much emotion.”
Every sexual assault case is different, says local defense attorney Jim Fahrenholtz, and the outcome depends on the strength of the case, the physical evidence, the witnesses and whether the victim is credible – adult victims have to testify and minors have to be taped.
“In sexual assault cases, it’s usually one person’s word against the other,” says Fahrenholtz, who works on about five sexual assault cases a year. “Often times, there isn’t enough evidence. So it comes down to credibility.”
Evidence and statutes determine whether he and the other prosecutors prosecute a sexual assault case, Hurlbert adds.
“You also need consistent stories and corroborating testimony,” says Lugert. “The prosecution has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
On Aug. 22, a 12-person jury in Breckenridge returned a not-guilty verdict in a sex assault trial prosecuted by Hurlbert’s Summit County team. Ira James Largent, 28, faced felony charges of sexual assault on an unknowing or helpless victim and aggravated sexual assault.
According to public defender Dale McPheetres, the jury in this case had little evidence to go on. After the trial, two jurors said it wasn’t possible to convict Largent because enough reasonable doubt emerged from
testimony about what happened in November 2001.
Trial or plea?
Local defense attorney Carol Curtis says she had three sexual assault cases in the past year – all in which defendants entered a plea bargain.
“People choose a different avenue in order of avoiding the possibility of being convicted,” Curtis says. “Even if they’re not guilty, the potential is that they could be convicted. And once you’re convicted of a sexual assault crime, monitoring in the years during probation is extraordinary demanding.”
Although settlements in plea agreements for sexual assault cases are harsh – most include counseling for years, lie-detector tests and orders to have no contact with children – 17 defendants in 38 cases in the past two years chose to enter a plea.
From January 2001 to July 2003, there were 38 cases of sexual assault filed in Eagle County. Of those, only five went to trial. Here were the outcomes:
– 15 plead guilty.
– Eight were dismissed.
– Two were found not guilty in a jury trial.
– One was found guilty by a jury.
– 12 cases are ongoing, including Kobe Bryant’s.
Some defendants, Lugert says, will try to plea bargain to a misdemeanor sexual assault charge.
“Still, that can include two years in prison and registration as a sex offender for many years,” he adds. “Many cases end up in trials because the conditions in pleas are harsh and the district attorneys won’t negotiate them.”
In September 2001, Tony Clark of Grand Junction was sent to prison for at least 10 years for fondling a 10-year-old girl’s crotch on a Greyhound bus traveling through Eagle County the year before. Eagle County District Judge Richard Hart said he would have considered sending Clark to a halfway house had he not been rejected by the only two community corrections programs in Colorado that accept sexual offenders.
Although Clark was sentenced to at least 10 years, he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison because corrections officials won’t release him until he has successfully completed sex offender treatment, which won’t begin until the final two years of his sentence.
When she settles a case, Curtis says, she will to get the sexual assault reduced to an assault charge.
“But I believe the District Attorney’s Office will not offer a settlement with a non-sexual charge in Bryant’s case,” Curtis says. “I don’t see that happening. Kobe hasn’t just his criminal records to clear up, but his professional records, too. He wants to get vindicated. He needs to clear his name.”
The 24-year-old NBA star is charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old employee at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera on June 30. Bryant is free on a $25,000 bond. He claims the sex was consensual.
Vail Daily reporter Matt Zalaznick contributed to this story. Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at email@example.com.
Convictions on sexual assault in Eagle County in the past years include:
– In December 1999, a jury convicted Kenneth Lucero on two charges of sexual assault on a child. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
– In September 2001, Tony Clark, 30, of Grand Junction, was sent to prison for at least 10 years for fondling a 10-year-old girl’s crotch on a Greyhound bus traveling through Eagle County in April 2000. Clark admitted he touched the girl, who was sitting next to him, but said tearfully it was an accident and not a sexual attack. The girl was sitting next to Clark on the bus, which was traveling between Grand Junction and Denver. Her mother and sister were sitting across the aisle.
– On Aug. 9, 2002, Michael Scott Rouff, 26, of Vail was convicted of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl in the summer of 2001 at the Tarnes apartment complex in Avon. After a three-day trial in Eagle County District Court, Rouff was convicted by a jury of first-degree sexual assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He faced up between four and 14 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. His case is sealed.
The following cases were acquitted by Eagle County juries:
– In Sept. 2001, 32-year-old Charles Woodward was acquitted of raping his ex-girlfriend. An Eagle County jury found him not guilty after deliberating for four hours in a case that lacked any physical evidence. The woman, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, had accused him of attacking her in a Basalt trailer in April 2001. Woodward’s public defenders, Elizabeth Espinosa and Dana Christiansen, spent the three-day district court trial eroding the credibility of Woodward’s accuser, telling the jury his ex-girlfriend’s story got worse and worse each time she told it.
– On Dec. 13, 2002, Korey Robbie Sandoval, 21, who grew up in Red Cliff, was found not guilty by a local jury. He was accused of sneaking into a neighbor’s home on Eagle Street after a party and assaulting a woman who was sleeping in a bedroom. Eagle County sheriff’s deputies arrested him the following morning, Feb. 27, 2002.
– In May 2002, after a four-day trial, Daniel Stoops, 30, a Louisville mechanic, was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old Front Range girl in a Vail condo early on New Year’s Day 2001. Then-Deputy District Attorney John Clune, who is now in private practice, said in May 2002 charges of sexual assault in which a child is the victim can often be hard to prove.
– In January 2003, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed sexual assault charges against Daniel Orzech, 37, of Chicago. Orzech was arrested fleeing Avon on Interstate 70 after allegedly raping a 23-year-old woman who invited him back to her room at the Comfort Inn for drinks and pizza, police said Tuesday. The Wisconsin woman – and a friend she was staying with at the motel –met in Breckenridge Saturday and invited him back to Avon, Avon police Detective Mike Leake said.
* Note: Most of these verdicts were reached before Mark Hurlbert became chief prosecutor in the 5th Judicial District.
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