LIBERTY, Texas (AP) — A man convicted of participating in the repeated group sexual assault of an 11-year-old Texas girl was sentenced Thursday to 99 years in prison — but he wasn't in court to face his fate.
As the verdict and sentence were read in the Southeast Texas courtroom, authorities were searching for Eric McGowen, who fled a day earlier after the victim tearfully testified about the attacks. Prosecutors say the girl 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.
McGowen was free on bail at the time he disappeared, so 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.
His disappearance was the latest twist in a case that has 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.
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.
Jurors were swift in their decisions. They deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding him guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Then, after brief testimony in the punishment phase, they decided his sentence in less than 30 minutes.
Most of the jurors declined to comment afterward. The jury foreman made a brief statement as bailiffs led jurors from the courtroom.
"The state did their job. The evidence was overwhelming," said the foreman, who declined to give his name while being escorted out a back door
Neither the girl nor her family were in the courtroom when the jury's decisions were announced; McGowen's relatives also were not present.
The Associated Press could not reach the girl's mother for comment, but family friend Brenda Myers relayed comments from her. Myers said the girl's mom said that while she was glad the trial was over, she was upset that McGowen was still on the run and was concerned for the safety of the girl and her three other children. Myers runs a youth center in Cleveland and knew the girl before the assaults. The girl was placed in foster care after police began investigating the sexual assaults, but it's unclear where she lives now.
McGowen was the first defendant to stand trial in the case. 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.
Prosecutor Joe Warren said he doesn't believe that the jury's conviction and sentence were lessened 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 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 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, Warren had asked jurors to show no mercy to McGowen and sentence him to life. Testimony covered McGowen's criminal record, including a burglary conviction.
"Don't let him out of prison. Don't let this happen to anybody else. ... Don't let the next child who has a pack of dogs chasing her get raped," he said.
Poston asked the jury to sentence McGowen to the minimum of 25 years, saying this was not a crime committed under the threat of violence. He added that he was not suggesting it was the girl's fault. He said the blame fell on the men and boys who sexually assaulted her.
"I ask you not to throw away his entire life," he said.
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. Trial dates have not been set for any of those defendants.
Asked how McGowen's guilty verdict might affect those cases, Warren told reporters, "They better get their business straight."