Three weeks after Vernon Haynes and four other New Orleans police detectives were suspended in the wake of a scathing report on their alleged failures to document any work on hundreds of reported sex crimes, Haynes took the witness stand Tuesday to face hostile fire from a prosecutor over his investigation of a tourist’s rape allegation from the weekend before Mardi Gras 2013.
The veteran sex crimes detective, accustomed to helping prosecutors bolster their cases before juries, was called to the stand this time by defense attorneys aiming to cast doubt on the woman’s story.
But Haynes’ testimony ultimately didn’t seem to matter as much as a tearful, halting account earlier Tuesday by the alleged victim, who was a 22-year-old University of Texas senior on a Mardi Gras vacation with friends when she flagged down a late-night ride from a stranger in the French Quarter. She ended up raped, bruised, bedraggled and shoeless in Central City, with Curtis Hawthorne’s DNA all over her.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated for two hours before finding Hawthorne, 23, guilty as charged late Tuesday of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery in the Feb. 9, 2013, attack.
The jury refused to believe Hawthorne’s testimony that the sex was consensual and that the woman said “Thank you” as he dropped her off to catch a cab at the Amtrak station after a romantic interlude.
Hawthorne wept and moaned at the defense table after the verdict was read.
“How could anybody do this to me? She stopped me!” he wailed. The victim sat silently in the gallery, head down, before leaving the courtroom.
Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich set a Jan. 5 sentencing date for Hawthorne, who faces a life prison sentence. He had turned down an offer of a 30-year sentence in return for a guilty plea.
The woman described struggling to find a cab about 2:30 a.m. on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, then flagging down Hawthorne and hopping in the front of his silver coupe. She agreed to pay him for the ride back to her hotel near City Hall. Instead, she testified, Hawthorne took her to an unfamiliar neighborhood and asked her for sex. She refused.
“That’s when I started saying he doesn’t have to do this, that I know he’s better than this. Those type of things,” she testified, dabbing her eyes and staring vacantly at the floor as she kept her head turned toward the jury.
“Then he said, ‘Things can get a lot worse.’ He showed me the gun he had and made me get in the backseat of his car,” she said. “I was just crying, asking him to stop.”
She said he raped her before driving her to the Guste high-rise apartments, where he told her to get out. He drove off as she reached in the back for her shoes and purse, tossing her to the ground, she said.
The woman, who lives in Dallas, approached a security guard, who called 911. Two patrol officers showed up, and the case was assigned to Haynes.
The case fell within the three-year period from 2011 to 2013 that Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office recently reviewed, finding the five detectives sloughed off 840 cases to the “miscellaneous” bin, leaving no paper trail.
Of the 450 reported sex crimes assigned to the five detectives in which some notes were made or a cursory initial report was done, Quatrevaux’s office found no supplemental police reports documenting a follow-up investigation in 60 percent of those cases.
The report prompted Mayor Mitch Landrieu to call for a complete overhaul of the entire Sex Crimes Unit, while announcing a new task force to reinvestigate 271 cases flagged by Quatrevaux’s office.
The Mardi Gras rape case won’t be one of them. Haynes wrote up three supplemental reports on that case and secured an arrest warrant after the rape exam evidence turned up a match to Hawthorne, records show.
Haynes testified that he attempted to develop a composite sketch of the suspect from the woman’s description and tried to establish where she got in his car and where she was raped. But the woman, who admittedly had been intoxicated, couldn’t help him, he said.
He said he also searched security footage from a place where the woman’s debit card was used days after the alleged rape, to no avail.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli argued Monday that the break in the case came in spite of a weak investigative effort by Haynes, and he tried to press the argument during his cross-examination of Haynes on Tuesday. But Zibilich refused to let Napoli grill the detective directly about Quatrevaux’s report.
“The IG’s report is not part of this case,” the judge said. “I don’t want to hear another word.”
So the prosecutor was left to poke holes in Haynes’ investigation, apparently aiming to forestall criticism of the detective’s role in the case and leave the jury to focus instead on the uncontested DNA match, the woman’s statements to a sexual assault nurse as well as her emotional, hourlong turn on the witness stand.
Haynes acknowledged that he did not record her initial statement, saying it was “because the victim was intoxicated. She admitted to me she had been drinking all night.” Nor did he ever listen to the woman’s weeping 911 call, in which she made no mention of a rape but reported being robbed.
Haynes, a 13-year sex crimes detective before he was reassigned and then suspended last month, said the decision to seek out Hawthorne for a statement and a DNA swab, and then later to secure an arrest warrant, was made in conjunction with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
Hawthorne, who was represented by public defenders Chanel Long and Lauren Boudreaux, took the witness stand to offer a wholly different account of the incident.
Dressed in a white shirt and dark, oversized pinstripe suit, he said the woman hopped in for a ride and they had consensual sex after what he described as a long romantic night in the car before he dropped her off with cab fare at the Amtrak station.
“I didn’t rape anyone,” Hawthorne testified. “I gave her two $10 bills. She got out of the car, said ‘Thank you.’ I’m not sure if she got in the cab. She was close to the cab.”
Hawthorne offered some specifics about his encounter with the woman, down to the lighted stars he said she wore on her nipples.
“They weren’t lighted up. They was like glowing stars. One said ‘Kiss.’ The other said ‘Me,’ ” Hawthorne testified.
He said the woman came on to him, and that he never had a gun, even though a silver gun similar to the one she said he showed her turned up later in a grassy area that he passed as he ran from police upon his arrest in October 2013.
Hawthorne said both the woman and police were lying. He said he had been “fussin’ ” with his pregnant girlfriend on Canal Street, had gone back to get the car and couldn’t find her before the woman flagged him for a ride.
He said he didn’t know how she ended up bruised and shoeless.
“When she got in the car, I didn’t avoid her getting in the car. She was a pretty girl, attractive. It’s Mardi Gras night,” he testified.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.