An eight-day child rape trial in Wyoming County resulted in a verdict of guilty on all charges Wednesday, Dec. 23, for Benjamin Lawrence, 36, of Bridgewater Township.
A previous trial in December 2014 ended in a deadlock after jurors deliberated nine hours, then told a judge they could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Lawrence was accused of a long list of charges including rape and sexual assault of two girls in Washington Township, just west of Tunkhannock, when they were between the ages of 10 and 14, ending in 2013.
The case was prosecuted again with all of the charges intact before a different jury.
Wyoming County assistant district attorney Jerry Idec, in his closing statement, asked the jury to “remember the pain that filled the courtroom” when the girls testified.
The first victim, now 18, said that the defendant would begin by playing with her hair and kissing her face, then touch her sexually or have oral sex with her. She said that he told her how much he loved her, and that she must not tell anyone.
The younger victim’s description of the defendant’s conduct was similar. She said that the incidents began with stroking of hair and back and included fondling of her private areas. The encounters increased in frequency until the night before the charges were reported to the Pennsylvania State Police Tunkhannock Barracks when she was 14.
The older victim’s boyfriend went to the police to report the sexual abuse on Apr. 24, 2013.
The Wyoming County Press Examiner does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Jurors began deliberations Wednesday around 4:30 p.m., and at 9:30 p.m. told President Judge Russell Shurtleff they had reached a decision.
After the jurors announced a unanimous decision of guilty for some 20 counts including rape, indecent assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, and corruption of minors, the judge asked Lawrence’s attorney Paul Ackourey if he wish to have the jury polled.
He answered affirmatively.
All of the jurors responded with a verdict of guilty.
The victims on one side of he courtroom, and a family member of the defendant on the other, immediately began to weep.
Idec asked for the defendant’s bail to be increased from the $100,000 he had posted to $750,000, saying that he was a flight risk.
Defense attorney Paul Ackourey responded that he did not believe Lawrence was a flight risk, asking that bail remain the same.
Judge Shurtleff reset the bail to $500,000 straight bail, with a condition of no contact with any minors and requiring that a sexual offenders assessment board review be made.
Lawrence was taken into custody and transported to the Wyoming County jail.
The trial began Monday, Dec. 14, with jury selection. Out of 74 potential jurors called, only 51 showed up and filled out a questionnaire.
During a review process, the attorneys asked questions, trying to find jurors who could be fair and impartial.
By early afternoon, 12 jurors and two alternates were selected.
Shortly after lunch, attorneys presented opening arguments.
Idec said, “This case is about really bad sexual acts the defendant perpetrated on two children, two girls, and about their mother, who didn’t know it was going on.”
Ackourey reminded jurors that they had sworn an oath that they could presume that his client was innocent. He asked them to examine the evidence as presented in court to see if it was credible, and to look for reasonable doubt.
“This case drips with doubt. I’m confident that at the end of this case, you’ll make the right decision,” Ackourey said.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, the two victims and the eldest victim’s former boyfriend gave testimony.
The former boyfriend of the older girl had not testified in 2014, but did this time, telling the court what motivated him to go to the Tunkhannock barracks and report that Lawrence had been molesting the girls.
The first victim took the stand next, and related that Lawrence had begun the relationship by complimenting her and stroking her hair, then first touched her in a sexual manner the summer before seventh grade.
She said that she told her mother, but was told, “Don’t say that, it will get him into big trouble.”
She never told her mother again, she said.
When she turned 14 the abuse stopped after a single incident of sexual intercourse.
The younger victim’s description of the victim’s conduct was remarkably similar. However, she said that the encounters became more frequent as time passed, and included sexual intercourse on an almost
daily basis, until the night before the crimes were reported.
Sandra Sedaro from the Children’s Advocacy Center testified about her forensic examination of both girls aided with the use of a colposcope.
This device both illuminates and magnifies the female sex organs and allows the examiner to take photographs. A complete medical history was obtained as well. The victim’s statements were recorded, and the physical exams were both within normal limits and showed no injuries.
Caseworkers and advocates from Children and Youth Services, the Children’s Advocacy Center, and Victim’s Resource Center testified about statements the girls made at the police barracks and at a family meeting in April in Wilkes-Barre.
On Thursday, State Tpr. Joseph Pericci testified about the search of the defendant’s home, including his diagram of the floor plans and list of evidence obtained.
He said that after black plastic bags were taped over the windows, a mini crime scope 300 was used to scan the furnishings for stains made by body fluids, like blood, saliva and semen.
When the mattresses were scanned, several stains flouresced, and swatches were circled, cut out, and placed in evidence envelopes.
Alexandra Fashion was then called as an expert witness for the prosecution who spoke to the preparation of samples taken in as evidence.
On Friday, forensic science supervisor Joanne Marie Armaghan, of the Pennsylvania State Police Regional Lab in Wyoming, testified as a serology expert for the prosecution.
She said that she assigned some of the swatches taken in as evidence to herself as part of her own case work.
Armaghan said that while no sperm was present, it was strongly possible that the stains were seminal fluid, because of the concentration of P30 in the stains.
DNA in the first swatch was identified as belonging to a mixture of three different persons, with two main contributors: the defendant and the younger victim. The probability of DNA belonging to another individual besides either of these two individuals was identified as being one in 180 septillion in the Caucasian population of the earth.
On Friday, the defense provided its own DNA expert Arthur Young who took the stand.
He said that one swatch did contain a mixture of Lawrence’s DNA and of the second victim, but that Lawrence’s DNA was from a non-semen source, like saliva, skin cells, or urine. No sperm was detected.
Testimony stopped after 6 p.m. Friday, with Judge Shurtleff instructing the jurors they could have the weekend off but to return at 8:30 a.m. Monday and not to discuss the case with anybody over the weekend.
On Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 21-22, many witnesses for the defense testified.
A suggestion was made by one of those testifying that the older victim had fabricated the charges to get even with Lawrence, and was intimidating the younger victim into collaborating.
Many character witnesses, including Adam Rauch, president of Rauch excavating who was also a cousin of Lawrence’s, testified that Lawrence was a good father and friend who would never do such a thing as the charges implied.
On Wednesday, attorney Ackourey began his closing arguments by defining presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt. First, there was the testimony that the older girl was obsessed with her boyfriend, which she did not deny on the stand. He said that she had told several people that she had a plan.
Several witnesses, Ackourey said, testified that the plan was to falsely accuse Lawrence of sexually abusing her so that she could continue her relationship with her boyfriend.
Ackourey pointed out the testimony of numerous family members and friends, including a grandmother, who said that the younger girl wanted to speak up and “tell the truth” at a family meeting, but said that no one would listen to her. He said that every time the younger girl seemed to be ready to retract her story, she would be warned and institutionalized. He also pointed out the numerous character witnesses for the defendant, and said, “You can acquit the defendant on character references alone, if you feel that these accusations go against his reputation and character.”
Assistant DA Idec countered, “This case was over after the victims testified. The emotional pain you observed proves that the defendant committed these acts. You can’t get around the pain.”
He said that the two victims did not report this to the police. The older victim told her boyfriend, whom she trusted, as well as some of her friends.
Idec added that the girls “have every incentive to come here and say that it didn’t happen. They continue to tell what he did to them, because it’s the truth.”
Following the closing statements Wednesday, Judge Shurtleff said they would break for a brief recess around 3 p.m.
After the jurors returned to the courtroom a half hour later, the judge described in detail each charge and what was necessary to find someone guilty.
At 4:30 the jurors were sequestered, and they came back five hours later with the charge of guilty on all counts.
On the Monday after Christmas, Idec said the case was the most challenging he had faced in 19 years as a prosecutor, and even though the trial only went eight calendar days, the jury did overtime by nine hours suggesting that in reality they had the equivalent of 10 days duty.
He acknowledged some things that were done differently from when the case had been prosecuted a year earlier and ended in a hung jury.
Idec said this time, having the former boyfriend of the oldest victim testify as to why he went to the state police to report abuse was important, “But the courageousness of the two girls won the case.”
He added, “They somehow found great strength in confronting the defendant.”
Idec noted that sentencing would be 1-2 months away, and said that Lawrence faced a maximum of 40 years in state prison in all of the counts in each girl’s case, for a total of 80 years.