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Amelia Phares

The family of Amelia Phares unleashed their anger Thursday at Blake Cowell, the man they blame for her death, as he stood, head bowed, in a St. Tammany Parish courtroom awaiting sentencing for a single count of carnal knowledge of a juvenile.

Young sex-crime victim's family left with questions, regrets after St. Tammany's perceived failure

The family members made clear in victim-impact statements that they believe Cowell, a 21-year-old Mandeville man, is responsible for the death of Phares, a 16-year-old high school junior who committed suicide in 2016 while the investigation into her alleged rape at a neighborhood swimming pool languished.

"You have stolen our happiness," her grandmother, Gloria Phares, told Cowell. She described the pain of watching her granddaughter wrestle with a fear that she couldn't quell and the sapping of her self-confidence following her encounter with Cowell, who was 18 at the time.

"I hope your conscience bothers you and every night her name and face steal your peace, because I know I'll never have any," Gloria Phares said.

But despite pleas from family members for the maximum sentence of six months in jail, 22nd Judicial District Judge Reginald Badeaux sentenced Cowell to a year of unsupervised probation and a $1,000 fine.

"My sentence is not going to assuage your grief," he told the family.

Amelia's father, Timothy Phares Jr., said afterward that the light sentence was exactly what he expected but that he was still "completely disappointed." He wanted the judge to sentence Cowell to the maximum allowed and also to ensure that his criminal record cannot be expunged.

Timothy Phares also repeated the contention that he made in the courtroom: that if Cowell had been arrested for rape the night the incident occurred, his daughter would still be alive.

"If she had seen that the justice system was working — to help her, not to help him, and to protect her rather than protect him, I think she would have fought this battle all the way to the end," he said.

Phares, who was celebrating the first day of summer vacation with friends on the night of May 21, 2016, told her family that Cowell had forced himself on her in his truck outside a neighborhood pool. Her parents drove her to Children's Hospital for a rape exam, her father said.

She committed suicide on Nov. 14 of that same year.

Cowell was never arrested but was issued a misdemeanor summons for carnal knowledge of a juvenile earlier this year and was eventually charged by the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's Office in a bill of information. 

That law does not address the issue of whether sex was consensual but simply prohibits sex between a minor and someone who is at least two years older. Unlike rape, it doesn't require prosecutors to prove the victim did not consent.

Her parents said that Thursday's sentencing brought them no sense of closure.

"Empty, just empty," her mother, Kim Phares, said of her feelings.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.