Falsely accused man freed
Victims tell court that to protect a young cousin, their grandmother made them accuse the man who cared for them.
By BARBARA BARRETT, Staff Writer
BOLIVIA -- Truth had its day in court Friday, and a man who had been convicted 20 years ago of molesting a pair of young girls was set free.
Sylvester Smith, 53, walked into the chilly evening air because of the testimony of two women. Both had accused him of sexually abusing them in 1984, when they were 4 and 6. Both say now that it wasn't Smith, but a 9-year-old cousin who committed the crimes.
They say they were encouraged to accuse Smith by their grandmother, now deceased, who was trying to protect the boy.
The case was prosecuted by now-Gov. Mike Easley and Wanda Bryant, a state appeals court judge. Through a spokeswoman, Easley declined to comment on the case Friday. No one is accusing Easley or Bryant of wrongdoing.
On Friday, Brunswick County District Attorney Rex Gore asked Superior Court Judge William C. Gore Jr. to grant Smith a new trial. He planned to drop the charges if his request were granted. The attorney and the judge are not related.
It was an emotional hearing, with about 50 relatives and friends packed into a small courtroom in rural Brunswick County.
One of the victims, now 25 years old, testified over the objections of her mother, who still held Smith responsible for the crimes. The other victim, now 26, testified reluctantly, saying she feared hurting her family.
During most of the testimony, Smith stared downward or straight ahead, quietly sitting to the right of his attorney, Roy Trest.
The victims were identified in court, but it is the policy of The News & Observer not to name the victims of sexual abuse.
Victim One, as she was known in the motion, took the stand. She answered nervously at first, but seemed to gain confidence. The district attorney asked her how she knew Smith.
"He was my daddy," she answered. She said Smith dated her mother, was the father of her younger brother and took care of her while her mother worked.
Gore asked her about the trial 20 years ago.
Gore asked: "Did he, in fact, when you were 4 years old, rape you?"
"No, he didn't."
"Did he have sex with you in any way?"
"No, he didn't."
"Did he molest you in any way?"
"No, he didn't."
She had been raped, she said, by her cousin now a man of 29 serving a life sentence for murder.
As a child, she had told her grandmother, who had custody of the boy, that her cousin hurt her. She said her grandmother told her she was lying, that it must have been Smith.
"There was a lot of pressure coming from someone that I love."
"That being whom, ma'am?" Gore interrupted.
"My grandmother," the woman said, her voice breaking.
Twenty years ago, she said, she was confused, and she kept asking, "Are they going to take my daddy away?"
As she testified Friday, someone called out from the back of the courtroom, "Why are you lying?"
The judge called for quiet, and the woman who had called out the mother of Victim One cried softly.
Victim One testified that she couldn't stop thinking about Smith and the freedom he was denied every day.
"That's something I can't live with anymore," she said. "My heart won't allow me to do that."
Several weeks ago, she contacted a lawyer Trest and then the district attorney. She talked with the other victim, her cousin, who was reluctant to come forward but concurred that Smith was not their abuser.
And when Judge Gore asked why it had taken her so long to tell the truth, Victim One said she had spent time just trying to figure things out.
"I wish I could've done it sooner," she said.
Victim Two testified later, and only briefly. She gave brief answers but confirmed that Smith had not abused her.
Then, in a surprise to the attorneys and family members, the judge invited Victim One's mother to testify. She came up from the last row, swore on a Bible and said she thought her child was wrong.
She said Smith had haunted her by writing letters from jail proclaiming his innocence. His family members threatened her, she said, forcing her to flee to another state for several years with her children.
The mother said she had never believed Smith could do such damage, but she didn't think her own mother would encourage a child to lie.
Finally, she acknowledged under the judge's questioning that she didn't know whether Smith had committed the crimes only that a doctor's visit showed that someone had hurt her little girl.
"I love my daughter," she said.
Right thing to do
In closing arguments, the district attorney talked about the "ascertainment of truth."
"She tried to tell the adults the truth 20 years ago," Gore said.
Prosecutors at the time pushed the case, he said, which was the right thing to do.
"But an adult another adult manipulated the system," Gore said. "And it may be time for us, as the system, to make it right."
He asked for a new trial and, if granted, said he planned to dismiss the charges against Smith.
Judge Gore returned half an hour later with a decision.
He read aloud the words "new trial," and Smith bowed his head on the table for a long moment. His attorneys patted his back.
And when, moments later, the district attorney dismissed all the charges and Judge Gore declared Smith was free to go, about four dozen family members exploded in cheers and shouts.
Smith pumped his fists heavenward. Someone yelled, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!"
Across the courtroom, Victim One embraced a couple of family members across the railing. She smiled slightly, then walked quietly out a side door.
The attention was on Smith now, and he was enveloped in hugs and smiles.
He went with his entourage to a private room, where Trest led the group in a prayer of thanks.
Trest said he plans to ask Easley for a full pardon.
And moments later, as sheriff's deputies led Smith outside, a group of women took up a hymn, their song echoing through the hallway:
"It's just a blessing. It's called a blessing.
Praise the Lord, Hallelujah,
Staff writer Barbara Barrett can be reached at 829-4870 or firstname.lastname@example.org.