Prosecutor wants more time to prepare for trial in Calhoun High School sexual battery case

Prosecutor wants more time to prepare for trial in Calhoun High School sexual battery case

May 16th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/23/14. Avery Johnson, Fields Chapman, and Andrew Haynes, from left, converse during a break while in Gilmer County Superior Court Judge Amanda H. Mercier's courtroom on October 23, 2014. The three are defendants in a sexual battery case from a Calhoun High School's post prom party earlier this year. On July 7, a Gilmer County grand jury indicted 18-year-old Andrew Isaac Haynes on a count of sodomy, based on evidence that Haynes performed oral sex against the will of a female student during a post-prom party. The grand jury also indicted 18-year-olds Fields Benjamin Chapman and Damon Avery Johnson on other charges in the case.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

ELLIJAY, Ga. — Four years after the arrest of three Calhoun High School students for allegedly attacking a female classmate at a post-prom party, the case's prosecutor said he needs more time. About 12 months, to be exact.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Steve Spencer explained during a status hearing in Gilmer County Superior Court on Tuesday that the ages of the accuser and witnesses complicates the case. They were all high school seniors at the time of the party, on May 11, 2014. Several moved out of town to go to college.

Spencer said he needs to wrangle them up at a time when they will all be in the area. He suggested next summer, when they might be on break from college. At that, a woman in the audience scoffed and said under breath, "I think all of them have graduated."

"We need a little more time to get ready," Spencer told Superior Court Judge John Worcester, adding that he is scheduled to prosecute multiple murder trials this year.

Defense attorney George Weaver, who represents Fields Benjamin Chapman, argued that Spencer has already had enough time to bring the case to trial. He pointed out that the district attorney's office gave him four boxes filled with evidence, though the attorneys for the other two clients had not yet received that information.

Steve Williams, who represents Andrew Isaac Haynes, and Jesse Vaughn, who represents Damon Avery Johnson, have said the state hasn't provided them with any evidence. While that isn't his responsibility, Weaver said he got the information by walking into the district attorney's office and demanding copies of the files. He said he acted obnoxiously, to force the state's hand.

During the hearing, he told Worcester that the lawyers need to hold pretrial hearings as soon as they can. Spencer then said he and the defense attorneys could create a schedule by the end of next week.

"I will come in here on a Saturday to have these motions," Weaver said. "Or a Sunday. I don't care if you start pulling night court. Something needs to be done in this. My (client's) family needs some relief. We don't need to be sitting, talking about next summer. That will be five years and a half into a case. My client is entitled absolutely to have a speedy extradition in this, and it hasn't been done."

Worcester agreed that the case has sat idle for too long and told the lawyers, "I just want to move this thing off the dime, one way or the other."

The Gilmer County Sheriff's Office arrested Chapman, Haynes and Johnson on May 27, 2014, charging them with sexual battery of a female classmate. Investigators said the boys assaulted the woman at a party in a cabin in the Coosawattee River Resort, a gated community in Ellijay. Sheriff Stacy Nicholson said several students got drunk at the party, and the boys sneaked off with the accuser in an upstairs bedroom.

In July 2014, a grand jury indicted the three men on charges of aggravated sexual battery and sexual battery for allegedly penetrating the woman's vagina with their fingers. The grand jury also indicted Chapman and Haynes on a sodomy charge for allegedly performing oral sex on the woman.

After the men's defense attorneys protested some technical issues with the indictment, a prosecutor brought the case to another grand jury and indicted each man for about nine more charges. The specifics of the case did not change, though. Combined, the men face up to 10 life sentences.

The attorneys held hearings in October 2014 and January 2015. Since then, the criminal case has mostly been quiet. In May 2016, the accuser filed a lawsuit against several parties, including the three men, the owners of the home where the party took place and the Coosawattee River Resort Association.

The insurance company for the home's owners settled with the accuser in November 2016, as did the insurance company for the neighborhood association in February 2017. Court filings do not show the sum of those settlements. In May 2017, court filings show, State Farm paid the accuser $100,000 on behalf of the Chapman family, as well as Haynes, Johnson and Andrew Harper, an alleged witness to the sexual battery.

In a counter lawsuit in the case, Haynes said the accuser has made "willful, malicious and false accusations" against him and the other men. The suit alleges that Mercer University reascended Haynes' acceptance after news of the case broke four years ago, even though the college initially offered him a scholarship. He said he unsuccessfully tried to enroll in other schools, including Dalton State College.

In his lawsuit, he also said the accuser lay in a futon with Johnson during the party, straddled him and rubbed herself against him in front of other students. She allegedly later followed Haynes and Chapman into an upstairs bedroom, where she kissed and groped them. When Johnson came into the room, according to the lawsuit, the accuser started having "sexual contact" with him.

During Tuesday's hearing, Weaver said he filed the motion to quash the indictment because the prosecution made several procedural errors. He said the state spelled the defendant's name several different ways and mixed up Chapman and Haynes in the accusations.

Weaver said the grand jury also did not return the indictment in open court, as is required in Georgia. He said a clerk turned on the lights to the room at 5:02 p.m. and walked in with District Attorney Alison Sosebee. He said the prosecutor is not supposed to be involved in returning the indictment.

After the hearing, Williams said he believes the case could end before the lawyers agree on a scheduling order.

"There's a realistic opportunity that the motion to quash will be granted," he said, "and the whole thing will be done."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.