A judge in St. Bernard Parish has thrown out an indictment against a local fisherman accused of raping a 12-year-old girl more than three decades ago, ruling that prosecutors tainted the grand jury proceedings by failing to properly explain the rape statute on the books in Louisiana in 1980.
The fisherman, Raymond E. Nehlig, 51, hailed the ruling, issued last month, as a long-awaited vindication, maintaining he had been falsely accused three years ago by a relative as part of a bitter land dispute and that he “never even touched that girl.”
Prosecutors, however, said they are considering presenting the case to another grand jury before the end of the year.
The case presents exceptional challenges to prosecutors, in part because of a dearth of physical evidence.
Nehlig’s defense attorney also has contended that the only charge the state could legally pursue at this point — first-degree rape, which before this year was referred to as aggravated rape in Louisiana — would not apply even if a jury believed the account of the alleged victim.
“We are weighing all of the evidence prior to deciding,” Assistant District Attorney Lance Licciardi said.
The woman, who is now 47 and lives out of state, returned to St. Bernard Parish in 2012 to report an attack she said began while she was asleep at a relative’s home in summer 1980. The New Orleans Advocate does not identify people who say they were victims of sexual assault.
The woman said in a telephone interview that she would have reported the rape years ago but had been told repeatedly — even upon receiving counseling as a young woman — that too much time had elapsed for her to pursue charges.
“I didn’t know that the law allowed me to,” she said. “I felt the statute of limitations had passed by the time I was old enough to do anything about it.”
The woman told investigators that Nehlig, a relative of hers who was about 16 at the time, made unwanted advances by groping her in a swimming pool, followed by inappropriate comments about the size of her breasts, according to court documents.
Nehlig scoffed at that claim, saying in an interview that the pool in question was not even constructed until 19 years after the fondling supposedly occurred.
In a 2012 interview with authorities, the woman provided a harrowing account of sexual assault and “terrible pain” that she said awoke her at a relative’s home. She accused Nehlig of entering her bedroom shortly before sunrise and forcing himself upon her. She said he placed a hand over her mouth “because maybe he thought I was going to say something or scream.”
Later, the woman said, Nehlig warned her not to say anything about what had occurred.
The woman told The Advocate that she became emboldened to come forward after learning of other members of her family she feared had suffered a similar plight.
“I think he needs life (in prison),” she said, “and he needs to be away from other children and other people.”
Nehlig denied wrongdoing, claiming certain family members had conspired to have him “sent away” so they could commandeer a piece of land he is poised to inherit.
“It’s a family issue over this land,” he said. “My daddy’s about ready to die, so if they put me away, they get everything.”
Nehlig’s defense attorney, Richard Tonry II, argued that prosecutors under the administration of former District Attorney Jack Rowley misapplied the aggravated rape statute in presenting the case to the grand jury.
In 1980, one definition of aggravated rape was that the victim was younger than 12. The law since has been changed to include victims under 13, but the girl was 12 at the time and a constitutional clause prohibits laws that impose or increase punishment for offenses after they were committed.
Tonry further argued that Nehlig cannot be convicted of any lesser offenses — such as sexual battery or forcible rape, now referred to as second-degree rape — under the statute of limitations.
Prosecutors countered that the charge of aggravated rape applied to the case not due to the age of the girl but because she had resisted Nehlig and had been overcome by force.
The defense, however, pointed to the following passage in the woman’s statement as an indication that she had not resisted: “At the time, I didn’t know what exactly was going on, but for some reason I didn’t fight him or even try to scream.”
Judge Jeanne Nunez Juneau granted a motion to quash the indictment on Aug. 20. She ruled that prosecutors had committed an “error of substance,” in part by failing to read to grand jurors the applicable statutes verbatim and instead relying on “extemporaneous descriptions of the law.”
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