Jacob Ewing, accused of sodomizing a then-13-year-old girl one night at a cemetery, was acquitted Thursday afternoon by a jury in Holton, Kan.
Ewing’s defense attorney, Kathleen Ambrosio, said she was very pleased by the verdict. After it was read, family members and supporters of Ewing became emotional as they hugged one another.
“I think it was the right verdict in this case,” Ambrosio said.
Ewing, 22, and his family declined to comment to The Topeka Capital-Journal in the hallway after the verdict was delivered, and messages left with the family by The Star were not returned.
After about five hours of deliberating, the jury unanimously made the ruling on the two counts Ewing faced — aggravated criminal sodomy and indecent liberties, crimes that would have carried mandatory life sentences.
The case drew media attention because it divided this small Kansas community so deeply that attorneys had trouble finding impartial jurors, with some residents seeming to cast blame on the alleged victim.
The Ewing family is well known in the area and owns the Holton Farm & Home business. Some raised concerns that because of the prominence of the family and because of the tight-knit community, jurors may have difficulty arriving at objective conclusions.
“I know people around here that just because they’d be the one convicting (Ewing), they might think twice about doing it,” one resident said.
Another resident said she believed the family’s stature in town would have no affect on jurors. “It wouldn’t have any bearing if I were on the jury,” she added.
Ambrosio said she was aware of concerns raised by some regarding biased jurors in the case.
“I think that allegations of juror misconduct are very serious, and I don’t take them lightly,” Ambrosio said. “I thought we had a fair jury selection process ... and I don’t have any information that anyone did anything inappropriate.”
Jacqie Spradling, the prosecutor in the case, spoke after delivering her closing argument on the difficulty in finding impartial jurors in Holton.
“You’ll find it more difficult to set the jury in a smaller community,” she said.
Ewing faces four other rape charges and one attempted rape charge. None of those alleged victims are minors, Spradling said. Ewing’s next trial begins in June.
Ambrosio, who is also representing Ewing in the five other pending cases, said she and Ewing felt relieved as the verdict was read.
“It’s a very stressful thing to go through a trial of that matter,” she said.
During closing arguments, Ewing sat rigidly, in a blue tie, white shirt and black slacks, as his defense attorney delivered a vigorous speech to 12 jurors — seven women, five men — exhorting them to find her client innocent of sodomizing and fondling a 13-year-old girl.
“The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Is this girl credible?’ ” Ambrosio said.
The prosecution argued that between late February and late May 2014, Ewing drove the 13-year-old girl he reportedly had been flirting with to a cemetery more than 10 miles from the child’s home, asked her or forced her out of the car and sodomized her.
The young girl testified that she remembered hearing animals chittering in the darkness, according to both attorneys.
A little before noon, the jurors filed into their deliberation room. They had been instructed that whether Ewing knew her age or not, if he had sex with the alleged victim, the law states he should be found guilty.
The girl said she felt immobilized by Ewing during the assault, Spradling reminded the jurors in her closing argument.
Though Ambrosio called into question the girl’s slightly varying accounts of the night (she said there was a white-picket fence, but it’s wrought-iron; she couldn’t recall what she was wearing; she couldn’t identify the paving of the road to the cemetery), Spradling said forgetting what she called insignificant details is common in sexual assault victims.
“You tell me what you were wearing three years ago,” Spradling said to the jurors.
The significant details are the ones that can’t be forgotten, Spradling said, repeating the words of a psychologist who testified earlier this week.
The alleged victim remembered key details of the attack — “in the cemetery at night, and she heard animal sounds,” Spradling said. “Why would she make this up?”
Ambrosio presented the argument that the girl invented the allegations to help another alleged victim of Ewing. The two alleged victims began communicating in 2016.
However, in 2014, the alleged victim in this week’s case talked about having sex with Ewing, Spradling and Ambrosio said, long before contact was made by the other victim.
Both attorneys highlighted the fact that Ewing deleted messages from his social media accounts during the time of the alleged crime.
But some messages remained. Spradling showed a photo of Ewing, his face hovering over a table, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Ewing sent the photo to the 13-year-old. At another time, he sent a message asking why she is “so damn pretty,” Spradling said.
After the alleged incident, a friend wrote to Ewing, warning him that the girl was 13. He wrote back, “I thought she was 17,” a statement used by Spradling as a sign that he had committed the crime.
“That’s not an admission,” Ambrosio countered. “The state wants to suggest to you he didn’t deny it, so he must have done it.”
Spradling split her closing argument, bookending Ambrosio’s hourlong plea for acquittal, during which she warned the jurors that Spradling would present Ewing’s letters and phone conversations from jail.
“Guess what: I don’t get a chance to respond,” Ambrosio said.
She didn’t, but she shook her head from her seat as Spradling presented for the first time during the trial the letters and a recorded phone call.
“I’m probably going to be in here a long time,” Ewing’s voice said on the recording. And in letters, he wrote: “I have the mindset that I’ll never see outside of here again.” And “22 and going to prison for the rest of my life.” And a mumbled agreement with a relative who expressed hope for a hung jury.
“Those are not the words of a person who has not committed a crime,” Spradling said. “They are the words of someone who would like to get away with it.”
Ambrosio, as she neared the end of her allotted time, spoke softly and quietly to the jurors.
“There are too many questions, too many contradictions, and there is too little proof,” she said. “You have to go back and parse through all this and decide the fate of someone accused of a terrible crime. Before you lay those consequences at his feet, you better make sure it’s right.”