The Louisiana Supreme Court has tossed the convictions of four men accused of gang-raping a teenage girl during a 2008 house party in Covington, saying new evidence and the ever-shifting stories of the victim and a key witness raised enough questions to warrant a new trial.
The four men — Derrick Maise, 26; Brett Ward, 31; Clayton James King, 25; and Michael Ayo, 28 — are all serving life sentences in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after they were convicted of aggravated rape of a 15-year-old victim. They remain there pending new bail hearings.
The allegations in the case were extremely disturbing: The victim testified that the four held her down and punched her while taking turns raping her over her repeated pleas for them to stop — or for her friend, who also was in the room, to help her.
But the court noted that the victim’s testimony in the 2012 trial differed significantly from accounts she gave in the years before trial. For more than a year after the incident, the victim denied that she had been penetrated, an essential element of an aggravated rape charge. The victim also told at least four different versions of what had happened at points, the court said.
The testimony of the victim was complicated by the testimony of her underage friend, who also was in the room that night and said she willingly had sex with one of the men. In one version of the story, the victim said her friend, identified by the initials A.L., helped hold her down, a fact that accounted for some of the bruising on her abdomen that she later attributed to Ward.
And when A.L. took the stand at trial, the story got murkier still. After being granted immunity, A.L. told the jury that the victim and three of the men — Ward, King and Maise — remained clothed and that she never saw them have sex. But after court recessed overnight, she returned to the stand and said King, Maise and Ayo appeared to have raped the victim, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
A.L.’s version of events “left much to be desired,” the court said.
Nevertheless, the evidence was persuasive enough to convince 10 of the 12 jurors to vote to convict. In Louisiana, only 10 jurors are required for a conviction, except in capital cases. Aggravated rape carries a mandatory life sentence.
Since the trial, defense attorneys have identified several other witnesses who say the victim told them she concocted the story as a way to explain bruises she had on her abdomen after being involved in a four-wheeler wreck. The teen told friends she was afraid her parents would be upset that she was riding where she wasn’t supposed to be, so she claimed that the bruises were caused by being raped, the new witnesses allege.
That account is backed by another witness, who was with A.L. in the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center. That witness said A.L. told her there was never any fight or rape, and that the injuries cited at trial were the result of a four-wheeler accident.
“There is no question that this newly discovered evidence undermining” the credibility of both the victim and A.L. is material to the case, the opinion said.
Darryl Carimi, one of Ward’s attorneys, said his client was overjoyed at the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I talked to him on the phone, and he was breaking down and crying with gratitude,” Carimi said. Ward’s family was similarly relieved: “They can’t believe it finally looks like they are getting some justice,” Carimi said.
Robert Stern, who represented Maise at trial and in his appeals, said he had yet to speak to his client. But Maise’s mother was “pleased,” he said.
The next step will be to determine the status of Maise’s bond, Stern said. That will require going back before Judge Allison Penzato, who heard the original case.
The case was prosecuted by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office after former District Attorney Walter Reed recused his office. A spokesman for Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said prosecutors were still reviewing the ruling Wednesday.
Justices Jefferson D. Hughes and Marcus Clark dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.