Jury acquits in rape case

Nearly three years after a Sylva Halloween party resulted in his indictment for statutory rape, Cody Jenkins is a free man following a two-week trial culminating with a not guilty verdict Aug. 25.

“We felt like it was pretty clear evidence that he wasn’t guilty of the charge and the investigation wasn’t done very well, and what was there evidence-wise showed that he didn’t commit the crime,” said defense attorney Frank Lay.

The party took place Oct. 25, 2014, at Dillard Excavating in Sylva, and was hosted by the Dillard family, whose house was nearby. The party included both adult and teenage guests, as well as large amounts of alcohol.

Jenkins, 24 at the time, was one of four people who faced charges in the aftermath of the party. A 14-year-old girl who attended the party told investigators that she had consumed multiple alcoholic drinks and gone to Jenkins’ home with him, where they then had intercourse.

The results of a medical examination showed that the girl had had a sexual encounter that night, and a search warrant executed on Jenkins’ home two days after the party recovered a used condom and packaging from supplies used to make Jell-o shots, among other items.

However, Jenkins claimed that he had never touched the girl.


The investigation

Jenkins’ house was next door to the Dillard home, and just a short walk from Dillard Excavating. He testified that he typically left the door unlocked. Just because the victim was raped in Jenkins’ home, Lay argued, doesn’t mean that Jenkins was the perpetrator.

Jenkins testified that he found the condom the next morning when he was cleaning up his home and that it appeared unused. He said he picked it up, threw it in the trashcan and put the wrapper in his back pocket as he continued to clean up.

Investigators sent the condom off for DNA testing, together with DNA samples from Jenkins and from the victim. However, when the results came back months later, they yielded no clear conclusion.

The inside of the condom — which would have been the outside as it lay on the floor in the testimony Jenkins gave — was found to be a mixture of three different contributors, but the lab couldn’t positively identify any of the three. The outside of the condom was found to bear the DNA of two people. One matched the victim, but the second could not be identified — the lab couldn’t say whether it matched Jenkins or did not match Jenkins.

Investigators have drawn criticism for what they did — or, rather, did not do — next. Evidence collected in the case included the underwear the victim had worn the night of the party and sheets from Jenkins’ bed. However, those items were never sent off for testing.

Lay pointed out that the state crime lab’s manual for submissions says that the first submission should be the sexual assault kit, one pair of underwear, “and a condom if applicable.”

In addition, the only DNA samples sent for matching belonged to Jenkins and to the victim. However, witnesses interviewed by law enforcement had identified at least two other men who the victim had been seen kissing.

“I can’t begin to offer you an explanation for why it is she gets this evidence and doesn’t do a single thing to inspect the evidence she’s been given,” Lay said of the State Bureau of Investigations investigator. “I’ve never seen anything like that in all the cases I’ve been on.”

District Attorney Ashley Welch took issue with that characterization.

“I do not agree with his assessment,” she said. “Would it have been helpful? Sure. Shocking? No. He knows this is the way this works.”

The case was initially investigated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. However, when allegations arose that a deputy in the department — Jimmy Henry — had attended the party, the sheriff turned the investigation over to the SBI to avoid conflict of interest. `

The inconclusive DNA test from the condom and lack of follow-up on the other items didn’t sit well with the jury.

“I feel like somebody needs to dig deep and show and prove, not just for Cody’s sake, but show how they didn’t do their job the way it should have been done,” said a 27-year-old male juror who asked that his name not be used. “There’s still a girl that’s out there that has been raped and nobody knows who done it.”

Testimony during the trial indicated that the victim was significantly impaired at the time of the alleged rape, having consumed six to nine Jell-o shots, some amount of beer, at least two smokes of marijuana and two doses of an antidepressant she’d been prescribed.

One of the underage girls who testified at the trial said that when the victim initially told the group of teenage girls that she’d had sex, she wasn’t able to say who it was with.


Aftermath of the verdict

Both Lay and Welch said that they appreciated how seriously the jury members took their job and how carefully they considered the evidence.

However, Welch said that she and Assistant District Attorney Christina Matheson, who argued the case, stand by their decision to prosecute.

“I really wish that the outcome had been different, but at the same time I’m proud that Ms. Matheson tried it,” Welch said. “I think she tried it very well. She believed in it, and we don’t only try cases that we know are slam dunks because that’s not doing justice. We would have tried this case all over again even if we had known the outcome, because I feel like it’s important.”

“Did I feel like he was guilty?” she continued. “Yes, I did. We would not have proceeded if in our heads we felt like there was a question.”

Welch said that she wished the bedsheets and the underwear had been tested but added that there’s a fine line between getting the tests needed to prosecute the case and overwhelming the state lab with “every piece of evidence.”

She said that Matheson had been preparing for this case for “a very long time” but didn’t discover the untested items until “the very last minute.” She decided to go ahead with the trial to avoid dragging out the ordeal for the victim.

“The longer this gets drug out for a victim the worse it is for them, so we decided to proceed,” she said.

The juror who spoke with The Smoky Mountain News said that the lawyers on both sides were “great,” clarifying that his criticism was directed at the SBI. He doesn’t believe that Jenkins deserves to be in jail but wishes that the person who was actually guilty of the crime had been on trial instead.

“I’m glad Cody is a free person, but in a way something happened to this girl, and if the state had done their job I believe they would have found out who truly done what they done,” he said.

Welch does agree on that point — that it’s important that justice be done to young people who find themselves in vulnerable situations. Victim-blaming, she said, should never be OK.

“People say, ‘Well she should have known better and she should have done better,’” Welch said. “Well, she’s 14 years old.”

For his part, Lay pointed out that Jenkins’ life has been impacted through this process as well. After the charges came out, he lost his job and he lost his home. It’s been hard to keep work — he had to move in with his parents.

“He’s very thankful now to be picking the pieces of his life back up,” Lay said, “but it was a huge impact on his life.”

Jenkins’ case was the only one of four cases stemming from the Dillard Excavation party that went to trial. The other three people took plea deals. Henry was fired from his job at the sheriff’s department and pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice after being indicted on two felony counts of obstruction of justice. Michelle Dillard agreed to 24 hours of community service and deferred prosecution for 12 months of supervised probation after being indicted for obstruction of justice. Austin Davis pled guilty to assault on a female after being indicted for a felony statutory sex offense involving a different underage girl.

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