LIBERTY, Texas (AP) — Jurors on Thursday convicted a man of taking part in the repeated sexual assaulting a Texas middle school student and sentenced him to 99 years in prison.
Eric McGowen wasn't in court when jurors found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child or later when they returned with the sentence, which also included a $10,000 fine. The 20-year-old had been free on bail and he skipped out during a break in proceedings Wednesday, the first day of testimony.
The judge issued an arrest warrant for McGowen Wednesday and allowed testimony to resume Thursday. Jurors returned with the guilty verdict after deliberating for about 20 minutes. Then, after brief court proceedings on his punishment, they decided his sentence in less than 30 minutes.
Prosecutors say the girl, who was 11 years old at the time, was sexually assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010 by 20 men and boys from her town, Cleveland, which is about 45 miles northeast of Houston. Police began investigating after one of the girl's classmates told a teacher he saw video of her being sexually assaulted in an abandoned trailer.
All six of the juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged in the case pleaded guilty. McGowen was the first defendant to stand trial. He faced a minimum sentence of 25 years prison and a maximum of life.
After prosecutors concluded their case Thursday following the testimony of nearly a dozen witnesses over a day and a half, defense attorney Matthew Poston rested his case without presenting any witnesses or evidence.
McGowen was in court Wednesday when the girl, now 13, spoke about her ordeal. The girl was not in court Thursday.
Testifying using a pseudonym, she told jurors about an encounter in October 2010 and one the following month in which she said McGowen and several other men and boys took turns sexually assaulting her while recording the encounters on video.
The girl briefly broke down in tears as jurors were shown a few minutes of video of the alleged sexual assault in October 2010.
She described another encounter that November that started in a different Cleveland home and continued at a nearby abandoned trailer. She told jurors that McGowen assaulted her with a beer bottle during that incident.
Like McGowen, most of the remaining 11 defendants in the case face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child.
The two men who pleaded guilty and one of the juveniles, who has since turned 18, also testified against McGowen. The two men are serving 15-year prison terms while the juveniles in the case each received suspended seven-year prison terms.
The case sparked outrage in Cleveland, and early on, some residents suggested the girl was partly responsible because they say she wore makeup, looked older than her age and wasn't properly supervised by her parents, drawing widespread condemnation.
The case also has been complicated by a belief among many in the predominantly black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are black, while the girl is Hispanic.