Slater man guilty of attempted rape
More than a year after an attack on a pizza delivery driver, a Slater man has been found guilty of attempted rape in Saline County Associate Circuit Court during a bench trial under Judge Tut Bellamy.
Bellamy presided over the trial of Donald "Donny" Howard, 49, who was charged in October 2001 with felony attempted forcible rape. The unclassified felony carries a range of punishment of five years to life in the Missouri Department of Corrections. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Dec. 30 to allow time for a presentence investigation and the filing of post-trial motions.
During the trial, Howard's defense attorney Edward McInteer never challenged that Howard had attacked the woman in her vehicle as she was making pizza deliveries. It was his contention that rape had not been Howard's motivation.
"He assaulted her. There was a struggle in the vehicle very briefly," McInteer said. "I believe this case has been overcharged."
The one-day trial began with testimony from Marshall Police Department Detective Todd Reeder, who established the crime scene as provided on a posterboard map. After Reeder, Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Don Stouffer called the victim and two witnesses to the stand.
The victim testified that on the night of the attack she was delivering a pizza to an address on Court Street that was unknown to her. She had parked her vehicle, a pickup, in an alley which runs between Court and Arrow streets and was on foot while looking for the address. When she learned that the address was some distance away, she returned to the truck to drive there.
Before she could close the door, a man she identified in the courtroom as Howard grabbed her hand and turned the truck's steering wheel as far as it would go. The victim said she told Howard to let her go and attempted to reverse the vehicle out of the alley. However, the vehicle's manual transmission slipped and the truck died.
As the struggle continued, the victim's fingers were bent backward until they nearly touched her arm, she said. She said she fought to free herself as the man leaned into the vehicle. Eventually she was able to bring up her knees and push the man away. When he fell, the victim was also pulled from the truck. When the two hit the ground the woman was able to pull free and ran to several women who were approaching the truck.
The victim said she was taken from the scene to Fitzgibbon Hospital, where she was fitted with a cast which she had to wear for six weeks.
During cross examination by McInteer the victim testified that she did not remember Howard ever touching her sexually or saying that he would rape her. The victim also testified that Howard had never attempted to cover her mouth to silence her screams. She also said Howard did not attempt to remove his clothes during the assault.
Witnesses' stories differ
The next witnesses called to the stand were the two women who the victim ran to following her escape. The first of these was Jessica Dryer.
Dryer said she and a friend, Jennifer Samer, were on their way to Generations on Arrow Street and had parked in a lot near the alley. She said they heard screaming and initially thought it was a domestic disturbance. However, when she heard the victim scream "You don't even know me" she knew it was something different.
"That's when we ran over and we were screaming 'Get off her' and just trying to make a bunch of commotion to get someone's attention," Dryer said.
Dryer testified that as they approached the truck she could see inside because the dome light was on. She said she could see Howard on top of the victim pulling at her shirt collar and groping her breasts. Dryer said it then appeared that Howard pulled the victim out of the truck and threw her to the ground.
Samer's story, while similar, did differ somewhat. Samer also heard the screaming and ran to the scene. However, she said she could not see the woman because of the position of the open truck door and Howard's body. Samer said she could see Howard's hands moving, but couldn't tell for sure what he was grabbing.
"There was definitely a struggle going on," she said.
Samer testified that after the struggle, the victim was disheveled with her hair and clothing out of place.
"I know from working in fast food you have to look presentable and that's not what she looked like."
Among other points made in his closing arguments, Stouffer said if all of the witnesses had given identical testimonies they could have been dismissed. Differences are expected because everyone sees things differently, he said.
In his closing arguments, McInteer said the state had fallen short of proving Howard had intended to rape the victim. He said the witness with the best perspective was the victim and she had testified that Howard had neither touched her sexually or threatened her with rape. He said the evidence constituted an assault.
"The fact that she was a woman doesn't change that," McInteer said.
Stouffer cited several cases which set precedent for attempted rape in his closing arguments. He said by the very nature of the charge, the act is not completed. He said if it were any other way victims would have to submit to the rape in order for an offense to be committed.
Stouffer also said that it was unfair to rely only on the victim's testimony because at the time "she was fighting for her life." He said in a situation like that a person's main concern is survival, not noting every detail.
"I suppose she should have been taking notes," Stouffer said.
Bellamy took more than four hours to review the evidence and case references presented before announcing the guilty verdict. In doing so he said that he believed the attack had been of a violent and sexual nature and the actions taken by Howard were a substantial step toward the act of forcible rape.
After pronouncing the verdict and scheduling the sentencing hearing, Bellamy took up the matter of Howard's bond. On the recommendation of Stouffer, bond was set at $100,000 cash only.