LIBERTY, Texas (AP) — While there was a finding of guilt and imposition of a lengthy prison sentence, justice was on hold for a young Texas girl who prosecutors say was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of 20 males as the first man convicted of the crime at trial was on the run.
Eric McGowen was not in the courtroom when a jury took 20 minutes Thursday to find him guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child and then less than 30 minutes to sentence him to 99 years in prison. He was convicted of participating in the repeated group sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl during a series of attacks in the small southeast Texas town of Cleveland over several months in 2010. McGowen was the first of the 20 — 14 adults and six juveniles — charged in the case to be tried.
McGowen, 20, who had been free on bail, remained on the run after fleeing the courthouse Wednesday in Liberty during a break in testimony.
McGowen’s fugitive status has upset the girl’s mother.
The Associated Press could not reach the girl’s mother for comment, but family friend Brenda Myers relayed comments from her. Neither the girl nor her family were in the courtroom when the jury’s decisions were announced.
Myers said the girl’s mother was concerned for the safety of her daughter and her three other children.
Myers, who runs a youth center in Cleveland, said she was hopeful justice would eventually be served.
The police “have very good resources and hopefully by the end of the week” they can find him, Myers said. “He can’t run very far.”
Because McGowen was free on bail at the time he disappeared, authorities say, a security detail was not required to watch or follow him. The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office has declined to release any details about the search for McGowen, other than to say that he is believed to be armed and dangerous.
Prosecutor Joe Warren said he doesn’t believe that the jury’s conviction and sentence were impacted by McGowen not being in the courtroom.
However, McGowen’s defense attorney, Matthew Poston, said his client’s decision to flee in the middle of the trial “absolutely affected” the jury’s decision to convict. Poston said he didn’t know where McGowen is now. McGowen’s relatives were not present when the jury’s verdicts were announced Thursday.
McGowen’s disappearance was the latest twist in a case that divided the town of Cleveland, both because of the horrific allegations and suggestions from some residents that the girl was partly responsible because of her appearance. 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 in Cleveland, located about 45 miles northeast of Houston.
Prosecutors’ case against McGowen included a videotaped confession and testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses, including the girl, who is now 13. Defense attorneys did not present any witnesses or evidence at the trial, which lasted two days.
McGowen was present Wednesday when the girl 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, who testified using a pseudonym, 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.
The girl was placed in foster care after police began investigating the sexual assaults, but it’s unclear where she lives now.
All six of the juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged have pleaded guilty. McGowen faced a minimum sentence of 25 years prison and a maximum of life.
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 was 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.
During closing arguments in the punishment phase, Poston asked the jury to be merciful and sentence McGowen to the minimum of 25 years.
But Warren said mercy was not deserved
“What he did to her, that can never, never be undone. Why does he deserve your mercy? He doesn’t,” he said.
Trial dates have not been set for any of the 11 remaining defendants.
Asked how McGowen’s guilty verdict might affect the other defendants’ cases, Warren told reporters, “They better get their business straight.”