LISBON - Family members of both the 4-year-old victim and defendant Earl Collins sobbed uncontrollably Thursday after jurors found him guilty of rape and an age specification showing the victim was under age 10 at the time of the offense last year.
The 46-year-old East Palestine resident now could be facing a life sentence in prison, depending on the decision of Judge C. Ashley Pike of Columbiana County Common Pleas Court.
No date was set for sentencing, but Pike asked county assistant Prosecutor Tim McNicol and Collins' defense attorney, Jennifer Gorby, to prepare memorandums on what they consider to be his options under the current state statute.
The age specification calls for a mandatory life sentence, but according to McNicol, the judge could choose to order life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after a minimum 15 years is served.
The two-day trial which began Wednesday morning with jury selection ended a day later with a quick afternoon verdict after a morning of testimony, both sides resting their cases, lunch, and then closing arguments. The jury of nine men and three women received the case at 2 p.m. and reached their decision by about 2:40 p.m., with Pike reading the result a little before 3 p.m.
Collins was accused of having improper sexual contact with his best friend's little girl, who was 2 years and 11 months old at the time of the incident on March 27 or 28, 2008 at her mother's house. The girl's mother was Collins best friend at the time and he had stayed there to watch the victim and another child while she went out with a female friend.
During a taped deposition which was shown to the jury on the first day of trial, the child, now 4, described how he carried her from her bed, placed her on her mother's bed in her mother's bedroom, took off her clothes and touched her. The next day, March 28, her mother was in the kitchen and overheard her talking to Collins about licking her on the butt and her private area.
"Justice was served," McNicol said, adding he was pleased the jury rendered its verdict even without forensic evidence, referring to DNA.
"Cases are becoming increasingly difficult to prosecute without DNA because of the emphasis placed on forensic science on television shows and in the media," he explained.
In the case at hand, the sheets from the mother's bed were tested for DNA, but nothing matching Collins was found. A DNA expert testified that the absence of DNA doesn't mean a sexual assault didn't occur.
McNicol spoke to some jurors after the hearing to find out what they were thinking when they made their decision. From what they told him, he said "they were firmly convinced by the voicemail left on Pam Sturgeon's phone and the testimony of Bob Lalley."
Lalley, who owns his own upholstery business in East Palestine, had been good friends with Collins and Collins worked with him at the business. He testified that the two of them worked together the morning of March 28, 2008 and when they returned to his shop, he left for the bank and Collins was tearing down a piece of furniture for him. When he returned, Collins was gone. He said he later received a phone call from Collins, who told him he did something he could go to prison for.
"I touched a little girl inappropriately. I'm not going to prison. I'm going to kill myself," he said Collins told him before hanging up.
During his closing argument, McNicol again played the audiotape of the voicemail the defendant left on Sturgeon's phone. Sturgeon was a friend of both the victim's mother and Collins. He had called her after the mother questioned him about what happened and left a message saying that if it happened, it wasn't intentional and he didn't remember doing it intentionally. Sturgeon was concerned about his welfare and contacted police.
Collins showed little emotion during the trial, but put his head down after the verdict was read.
When asked about the reaction of the victim's mother, McNicol said,"This is an extremely difficult process for any family to endure. I think she was relieved with the defendant being found guilty and the allegations being validated, but also simply relieved the process has come to conclusion."
During closing arguments, Gorby said the DNA evidence was the "most unbiased piece of evidence we received in this case."
She pointed to the fact that Collins' DNA wasn't present and questioned why the little girl wasn't taken to an emergency room that day and why the doctor at the Tri County Child Advocacy Center felt the need to question the girl further after she had made no admissions about what happened to a social worker.
She also noted that the mother was the one saying what she heard and that the daughter during her testimony said Collins also used his fingers and toes and face, creating some inconsistencies.
Collins didn't take the stand, with Gorby calling one witness. D.J. Reidy, his former brother-in-law, testified how the father of the little girl came to his house looking for Collins and made threats. During much of her cross-examination of state witnesses, she questioned then about her client's demeanor and the fact that he seemed scared and depressed and embarrassed over the accusations.
She contended that he didn't flee the area because he wasn't under arrest at the time, although McNicol pointed out that that he skipped an interview set up with a prosecutor's office investigator and quit his job the same day. There was also testimony that he was seen in Texas before coming back in September and being arrested.