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Rape verdict disheartens counselors Last week's acquittal of husband hard for specialists to accept; 'It was very discouraging'; Defense attorneys say prosecutors take on cases they shouldn't


The recent acquittal of a man charged with raping his wife at knifepoint stunned local rape counselors -- but many legal officials say it illustrates the difficulties of proving spousal or acquaintance rape cases.

"It was very discouraging to have that verdict, mostly for the victim and for women in general," said Sheila Begg, crisis coordinator of the Howard County Sexual Assault Center.

In the recent case against Rickey D. Jiles, she said, his wife "testified he was waving a knife around. I think that justifies extreme fear. It's incredible they found him not guilty."

But many local judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys say that proving a rape occurred can be particularly difficult when the defendant is the accuser's friend, date or husband.

"When an average person thinks about rape, they think of a 'stranger' situation," said Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon. But with spousal or acquaintance rape, "at some point in time there was some consent to some kind of relationship. It makes it more difficult for [jurors] to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt."

Some defense attorneys charge that today's stress on political correctness and pressures from victims' rights groups are driving prosecutors to take on cases they can't readily prove.

"You've got more of these cases going to trial when in the past charges never would have been brought," said Rockville attorney Daniel Kennedy, whose client James Snowden Jr. was cleared of rape charges in Howard County recently.

"I think that prosecutors have to have a good-faith belief he has a good chance of getting a conviction."

Rape and sexual assaults are crimes that generally involve victims who know their attackers.

A recent Department of Justice study estimated that friends or relatives committed more than half the 500,000 sexual assaults and rapes that women reported to interviewers.

Other groups, such as the Rockville-based National Center for the Prevention of Rape, estimate that up to 80 percent of sex crimes involve people who know each other.

Since January, McLendon said, the state's attorney's office has prosecuted 12 cases involving rape or sexual offenses, including six involving child abuse.

Among the adult cases, three -- including at least one that involved an accuser and defendant who knew each other -- resulted in plea bargains.

The three remaining cases -- all spousal or acquaintance rape cases -- ended in a judge's dismissal, a hung jury and an acquittal. These three cases had varying circumstances:

In one case, Circuit Judge James Dudley dismissed second-degree rape charges against Snowden, who was accused of raping a woman he was driving home from a Christmas party, ruling there was no force or threat of force.

The jury convicted him of performing perverted practices. He could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

In another case, the state's attorney's office pressed ahead with rape charges against Alvin Crooks -- even after his accuser recanted her allegations.

The woman said Crooks, her boyfriend, had beaten her badly and that she had fabricated the rape charges because she was mad. The jury was deadlocked on the rape charge, but convicted Crooks of battery and lesser sex offense charges. He could be sentenced to 31 years in prison.

In the most recent case, which ended last week, prosecutors argued that Jiles broke into his wife's house in the middle of the night and raped her at knifepoint because he was mad she wanted to end their relationship.

Prosecutors presented a 911 tape on which the woman tells the operator she is afraid of her husband and later she can be heard screaming and crying. The woman had recently changed her locks and phone number to get away from him, Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy argued in court.

But the defense painted a picture of a married couple who got into an argument because Jiles was having an affair with a friend of his wife.

District Public Defender Carol A. Hanson said that after Jiles broke in through the window -- but before the alleged rape -- he HTC and his wife cleaned up the broken glass together.

Jiles then carried it to the trash dump outside, she told the jurors.

"A person with criminal intent does not clean up glass from a window," Hanson said in closing arguments. "This is just a guy trying to get back into his house."

Hanson also highlighted the woman's alcohol consumption that evening and pointed out she had no physical injuries. She said Jiles had a knife that night but did not hold it during the sexual intercourse. And Jiles threatened to turn the knife on himself, not his wife, when the woman was making the 911 call, Hanson said.

"There's no sign of any force whatsoever. There is not a mark [on her]," Hanson said. "There's not a scrape, a scratch, a tiny little knife poke because it didn't happen this way."

Jurors acquitted Jiles of the rape charges against him, but convicted him of fourth-degree burglary for breaking into the house. He also was convicted of theft and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle for stealing his wife's car three weeks before the incident.

Talking after the case, Murphy said that many times jurors want to see evidence of physical harm to be convinced that a rape occurred. But often, "fear forces the woman into submission. Is that consent? No," she said.

In the Snowden case, the woman testified she had sex with him because she was afraid not to. Prosecutors argued that Snowden had climbed on top of the woman, pinning her down in the car seat.

But Dudley dismissed the rape charges against Snowden on a defense motion, ruling that there was no evidence of force or threat of force. Dudley said in an interview that there is nothing unlawful about a heavier person having sex with someone smaller.

"As a matter of law, that's not force," Dudley said.

Kennedy said the charges should never have been brought against his client. The woman simply had misgivings about the sex that night, he said.

"I don't think you have the prosecutors acting as independent arbiters," Kennedy said.

He said prosecutors bow to the pressures of victims rights groups. "Heaven forbid charges were not brought when they could have been," Kennedy said.

To which McLendon responded: "What is politically correct has no relevance to our decision to prosecute criminal charges. Some cases are difficult -- our job is to vigorously argue them to a jury or judge. Sometimes the jury acquits -- that is our system of justice."

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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