A Portage man has been acquitted of a child sexual assault charge.
A jury found Robert Harvey, 28, not guilty in Columbia County Circuit Court on Tuesday morning of inappropriately touching his girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter in November 2015.
Proceedings were called to an early close Monday afternoon after Assistant District Attorney Clifford Burdon called his final witness for the state. It only took minutes for Harvey’s attorney, Ronald Benavides, to question one additional witness for the defense — a woman who had worked with the girl’s mother, who testified to talking to the girl, who told the woman she was angry with her mom and Harvey, and further, hated Harvey.
“You heard her testify, she’s a little girl,” said Burdon in his closing arguments. “And her story varied a little bit —absolutely. What you saw was a little girl who was looking at you, directly in the eyes when she answered the questions.”
On Monday the jury watched a video of the girl being interviewed by a Columbia County Health and Human Services social worker, followed by the girl, now 7 years old, answering questions from Burdon and Benavides as her grandfather sat next to her for support.
The case began in November 2015, the girl’s mother testified Monday, when her daughter told her one morning that after climbing into bed with Harvey, he touched her butt. When she asked Harvey about it, he told her that he had patted the girl’s butt, “like you do.”
A month later after the girl had told her grandmother about what happened, there was further discussion and law enforcement was called to investigate, and the girl was brought to Columbia County Health and Human Services to be interviewed.
“She’s a brave little girl, that she was able to come in here and talk to a bunch of strangers,” said Burdon. “And now you need to decide if you think she was telling the truth — that’s what this all comes down to.”
“It’s clear that the heart of this case,” said Benavides, “is what she says about Robert Harvey.”
Benavides reviewed the testimony that had been presented to the jury telling them “there are some things that really bear thinking about,” starting with the video interview in which the social worker asked the girl if she was touched over or under her clothing.
“It’s a pretty common-sense question,” said Benavides, “and her response, if you remember, was ‘I don’t remember.’ Then she was asked again later in the interview and her response the second time was ‘under.’”
Another point was when the girl was asked how Harvey touched her, and she said with his hand, leading to the question of what he was doing with his other hand, and her answering that he touched her with both hands. Benavides expressed skepticism based on the way the information unfolded and particularly when combined with the girl’s description of Harvey having been lying in the bed with his face on the pillow.
When it came to the most invasive points of the accusation, Benavides recounted the girl answering a question about that by saying: “A little bit but not on purpose,” then later saying, “actually he didn’t touch me (there).”
“She’s a beautiful child,” said Benavides. “But she is also a human being like the rest of us.”
At 10:20 a.m. Tuesday the jury was sent out of the court for deliberation and 40 minutes later returned with a verdict, a sparse handful of observers in attendance including the girl’s mother and grandfather.
As Judge Todd J. Hepler read the jury’s finding of “not guilty,” Harvey leaned over the defendant’s table, then looked back up with his eyes welling with tears.
“I just think you have to ask the jury to look at the evidence and that’s where the argument comes from — the evidence that is actually presented,” said Benavides after Hepler gaveled the case closed.
“I think it was looking at the structure of the questions and the responses by the social worker, where there would be at the end a very similar question asked and it would be slightly different. And then the other big deal is what she told her mother on the day the incident happened and what she was saying a month later (was a different story).”