A 20-year-old Florida man who faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and lifetime registry as a sex offender if convicted of child molestation was acquitted by a Hall County jury Friday.
Joshua Stewart, who was 17 when he was accused of molesting a 4-year-old girl he was baby-sitting in an Athens Highway mobile home, wept after the jury found him not guilty on two counts of aggravated child molestation, his lawyer said.
"He was very happy," said Stewart’s court-appointed attorney, public defender Anne Watson. "He’s a very soft-spoken man of few words, but he had tears in his eyes."
The jury of five men and seven women spent less than an hour deliberating the case. Jurors were not available for comment after the verdict.
Watson, who spoke with some jurors afterward, said they were skeptical when presented with evidence that the accuser first spoke of the supposed molestation some seven months after it allegedly occurred.
"They said there was way too much reasonable doubt, and, as parents, they felt like if their child had been abused, they would have seen something," Watson said.
The four-day trial featured dueling medical experts who differed in their interpretation of a physical exam of the child. The defense expert said a mark on the child’s body that was presented by the state as evidence of an injury was a natural occurrence.
The prosecution also sought to show that Stewart had molested another child. An 8-year-old girl testified she was fondled by Stewart while the two were alone together in Florida.
Neither of the young girls could point out the accused in the courtroom, and the alleged victim’s testimony in court this week differed significantly from a forensic interview that was videotaped soon after the allegations surfaced, Watson said.
Stewart, a Hurricane Katrina refugee from Mississippi, lived in Gainesville for seven months in 2005 and 2006.
The accusations arose in Florida when the girl spoke up during a workshop for children of divorced parents, Watson said. Social services and police became involved in what is termed "protocol" for children who may have been abused.
"It appears to me there were too many interviews in the protocol process, and there were some suggestions made to her that she adopted," Watson said. "This case is an example of how weak evidence can make it through the protocol to a jury."
Stewart has spent the last year and seven months in the Hall County jail awaiting trial. Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin twice denied bond on the basis that Stewart had no connections to the community and could be considered a flight risk, Watson said.
A jury originally was picked for the case in August, but the trial was postponed when Tropical Storm Fay prevented key witnesses from traveling to Gainesville.
Watson said her client rejected a negotiated plea agreement offer made by the state that would have seen him receive a sentence of 20 years with 10 to serve in prison.
Stewart, of Ancadia, Fla., has no family in the area. He was to spend Friday night in an area shelter before arrangements are made to get him home to his foster family in Florida, Watson said.