WATERTOWN — A judge deliberated for less than 30 minutes Friday before he issued a not guilty verdict for a man accused of raping a girl younger than 8 years old.
Sheldon B. Dukes, who was charged with felony first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child and predatory sexual assault against a child, walked out of the courtroom in tears Friday afternoon. Judge Kim H. Martusewicz, who presided over Mr. Dukes’s two-day bench trial in Jefferson County Court, ruled the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof.
The not guilty verdict this week comes after a jury couldn’t decide if Dukes was innocent or guilty at a trial in March.
After issuing a verdict, Judge Martusewicz said he mostly considered the testimonial evidence in the case — the credibility of the witnesses, whether they were consistent, biased and if they had a criminal history. Moments after the ruling was issued, Mr. Dukes could be heard growing emotional before hugging his counsel. He then turned around and hugged his family in the gallery.
The prosecution, led by Chief Assistant District Attorney Patricia L. Dziuba, laid out what they believed to be evidence proving Mr. Dukes had sex with a child at least five times between June 2011 and July 2013. The alleged victim, now 14 years’ old, testified during trial as well. Ms. Dziuba said the alleged victim’s story has never changed, that she’s been very clear Mr. Dukes had assaulted her sexually. The details given by the 14-year-old are so specific that she wouldn’t even know what they were unless sexual assault had happened to her, she said, adding that she wouldn’t continue to identify Mr. Dukes considering he hasn’t been in her life for some time.
“There is no evidence,” Ms. Dziuba said in her closing statement, “that gives you reason to believe it was anyone other than the defendant.”
After the not guilty verdict, Ms. Dziuba said she can’t really make a comment on the judge’s ruling.
“The judge made the decision, and his determination,” she said. “That’s what he chose to do. I can say that we felt we had a case and that’s why we presented it. We wouldn’t have put a kid through testifying if we didn’t think we had the evidence ... We put everything out there.”
When asked if there was something prosecutors can do moving forward, Ms. Dziuba said “Nope. Nope. She gets no protection at all.”
Clifton C. Carden, Mr. Dukes’s attorney, said after the verdict that he’s always believed his client to be innocent.
“What’s difficult sometimes for anybody who doesn’t do this job is to understand that there is real innocence,” Mr. Carden said, “and then there is the technical innocence of ‘did the prosecution make their burden?’ and I think in both of these situations we can say that on both counts he is innocent.”
Carden said his defense focused on the length of time between the alleged assault and the victim’s disclosure of it; the difficulty for the defense to submit exactly when the assault happened, how many times, how much time had elapsed between the first assault and second — and whether those assaults even happened, he said.
“When you have a circumstantial case, it’s the testimony of people that is weighed the most and their criminal history, their behavior, their demeanor, how they testified the first time versus how they testified the second time,” Mr. Carden said. “That tends to diminish the weight, and our court system puts a very heavy burden upon the government to convict citizens of this state. And when that is the evidence and it’s diminished, it’s very hard to make that burden.”
Above all, Mr. Carden said he thinks the verdict was consistent with the evidence presented during trial.
“When anyone is facing life in prison, even for the professionals it’s a huge relief to get a verdict like this,” Mr. Carden said.