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After deliberating less than two hours, a jury has found a man accused of touching an 8-year-old girl not guilty on two counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor.
The defendant, Joseph Randy Dennis, 27, cried tears of relief, and his friends and family hugged one another and clapped from the public seating area when the verdict was read aloud in Juneau Superior Court.
“Thank you, your Honor,” Dennis said to the judge, choking up, as his attorney public defender Eric Hedland patted him on the back.
The verdict was reached at a little before 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday and was read aloud a few minutes later. The 12-member jury began deliberating at 2:30 p.m. following closing arguments. Seven of the jurors were women, five were men.
Dennis was arrested by Juneau police in January on suspicion of digitally penetrating his girlfriend’s daughter, now 9, at their home on New Year’s Eve 2011.
The state charged Dennis with the two sex crimes, both of which are unclassified felonies and punishable by up to 99 years in prison. If Dennis had been convicted, he likely would have faced a presumptive sentencing range of 25 to 35 years for each count.
The girl and her mother were not present in the courtroom when the verdict was read.
During the six-day long trial, the state theorized Dennis touched the girl while she was sleeping after Dennis returned home from a bar. The girl reported a vaginal injury to her mother on New Year’s Day, prompting the alarmed mother to call 911.
The state’s case heavily relied on the statements from the girl and the medical opinion of a local doctor, Dr. carolyn Brown, who performed three sets of medical exams on the girl. Brown concluded nothing but trauma could have caused the injury.
But the defense provided two expert witnesses — a doctor from Michigan and a nurse practitioner from Alaska — who independently, meaning they didn’t consult with each other, reached the conclusion that the injury was from a skin condition.
The defense also showed that there was no DNA evidence found on the girl’s vagina and that Dennis even encouraged the police to do the DNA testing.
Dennis denied the allegations during an interrogation at the police station, which was video-taped and shown to the jurors. The defense established that police weren’t trying to find the truth of the matter like they said they were, but just striving to get a confession since they already thought he was guilty.
Dennis thought he was going home after the interrogation, but he was arrested instead.
The defense introduced the videotape of that interrogation as evidence in the trial, rather than the state, since Dennis was so adamant that he never touched the girl.
Without physical evidence or a confession to rely on, the state asked the jurors to believe the child’s statements over Dennis’ denial.
“The last thing that you have to assess is whether you believe the child, and isn’t that usually the case in these cases? Isn’t that the usual situation?” Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp asked the jurors during closing arguments.
Kemp added that the girl and her mother didn’t have time to concoct a story, but that the defendant did.
But defense attorney Hedland asked jurors to contemplate what it is about society that makes people, collectively, want to believe the children in these cases.
“Maybe we have been victims ourselves, or we know people who have. Maybe we just think that it’s better to err on the side of the children. But we do it. We do do that,” Hedland said.
Hedland then pointed toward his client sitting at the defendant’s table and asked, “What about him? What about his life? We’re not here to decide whether (the girl’s) statement should be vindicated. We’re here to decide whether a crime occurred.”
The other side of the story
According to the video tape, when questioned by police, Dennis said he checked in on the girl before he went out for the evening and found her halfway on the bed and halfway off. (The girl’s sibling was also in the bedroom sleeping on the floor, and the girl’s mother was in the living room.)
As Dennis adjusted the girl back onto the bed, he said he noticed that her blue jeans were damp, as if they were sweaty. He said he asked the girl if she wanted help changing and she said yes in her sleep.
He said he began to pull down her jeans, and the underwear partially got tugged down with it, at which point she woke up and exclaimed “Randy!” He apologized for seeing her exposed and handed her a pair of shorts that were on the nearby dresser. She finished undressing herself and then put on her shorts herself, Dennis said on the video tape. She said thank you and went back to bed.
Dennis said he then told the mother that he helped changed the girl. The couple, who became engaged on Christmas Eve after dating for about two years, then got into a fight about finding a baby-sitter. Both of Dennis and the mother had several shots of liquor throughout the evening before midnight.
Dennis said he was mad from the fight and left to go to the bar with his dad. He said he got home sometime around 3:30 a.m. to 4 a.m., turned on a movie and passed out on the couch. The kids woke him up in the morning, and he went upstairs to bum a cigarette from a neighbor. When he came back downstairs, the door to their house was locked. His finance, who had just had a conversation with her daughter, screamed at him that she was calling the cops and kicked him out of the house.
The mother testified as the state’s witness and said there was no reason for Dennis to change her daughter since she is capable of doing that herself. That’s what first made her alarmed, she said. The mother said her daughter reported having an ‘ow-ie’ on her vagina, that Dennis “messed with my privates” and asked her to look at it. When the mother inspected the area, she saw redness and called 911. The mother said her daughter had never complained of such an injury before.
The state argued that Dennis touched the girl while she was wearing the shorts, which had a hole in the crotch area, after he came home from the bar, not before he went out.
The defense dismissed the hole in the shorts as “creepy innuendo” in the state’s theory. The girl testified on the witness stand that she had previously ripped a seam in the shorts while playing outside. Another witness showed that when the shorts were folded up, the hole was not obvious.
During closing arguments, Hedland pointed out problems with the state’s case, such as the location of the injury that Brown described. It was located between the labia majora and minora, not inside the vagina or on the clitoris.
Hedland also questioned the girl’s statements to a forensic child interviewer at the Child Advocacy Center in Juneau. Police had taken the girl and her mother to the center for the interview and medical exam soon after receiving the 911 call.
The girl tells the interviewer, Jennifer Narvaez, that Dennis “apparently” messed with her privates, which the defense said was an inference the girl made based her talk with her mother at the house.
The girl says in the interview that she could feel Dennis touching her despite the fact that she was sleeping. She demonstrates on Narvaez’s knee what she felt by tapping as if she’s typing on a keyboard, using most or all of her fingers with her palms facing down. The defense characterized that as bizarre, while the state said the girl is trying to describe a sexual experience that she doesn’t have knowledge of or words for.
Narvaez testified during the trial that the goal at forensic interviews at the CAC is to make the child comfortable, which Hedland took issue with during closing arguments. He said the most important thing should be obtaining the truth.
“Isn’t the point is not to put an innocent person in jail for something they didn’t do, not to tell a little girl she’s been sexually abused when she hasn’t, to find the truth? Isn’t that the point?” Hedland asked the jurors. “Kids — 8-year-old kids — that’s not torture to have them work a little bit during an interview. They have to do homework. They take tests. Not everything is eating cookies and playing with blankets and stuff, right? They can do it. It’s serious stuff.”
Kemp argued just because there aren’t physical findings, it doesn’t mean that abuse didn’t happen. Hedland responded that in that case, no matter what, the evidence or lack there of works against his client.
“If there’s physical findings, that means the guy did it. If there aren’t physical findings, that mean he did it, right?” Hedland asked. “If he confesses, that means he did it. If he doesn’t confess, it means he did it, right? What is he to do but to say I didn’t do it!”
Hedland asked that the jury not just find Dennis not guilty, but to find him innocent, although that flies in the face of people’s general desire to believe children who make accusations of sexual abuse.
“What do we do when what we want to be true isn’t true?” Hedland asked jurors.
After the trial
Dennis’ family members stood outside the courtroom then outside courthouse after the verdict was read.
His uncle, Russell Coker, was overwhelmed with tears.
“We all believed in him, and we all fought hard for this,” Coker said.
Coker said he thought that everyone — including the mother and child — had good intentions at the start and did what they thought should be done. But the case went on too far, he said.
“I really wish people could learn from this,” Coker said.
In between making phone calls, Dennis said in an interview he felt great relief when the verdict was read.
He described his experience as being inexplicable, and as being terrifying. He noted he was jailed for five months before his bail was posted and that inmates “tried to kill me for something I didn’t do.”
Dennis, born and raised in Juneau, was later released on an ankle monitor when his family posted bail on his behalf as he awaited trial.
“My family stuck by me 100 percent,” Dennis said. “They kept my hopes up and my head up.”
He said he wants to go back to work and start his life again.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.