After 7 hours of deliberation, jury unable reach verdict in sexual assault trial

2014-04-24T15:15:00Z 2014-04-25T00:48:42Z After 7 hours of deliberation, jury unable reach verdict in sexual assault trialBy EDDIE GREGG The Billings Gazette

After seven hours of deliberation, a jury was unable to reach a verdict Wednesday in the trial of a Billings man charged with two counts of felony sexual assault.

Prosecutors charged Ryan Wayne Morris, 42, with twice sexually assaulting an underage girl between September 2012 and June 2013. The first charge alleged that Morris touched the girl’s upper thigh and private area. The second charge alleged he touched her breasts.

Prosecutors are evaluating whether to re-charge the case, Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Julie Mees said Thursday.

A retrial is not considered double-jeopardy.

In Montana, felony sex assault is punishable by life in prison or a sentence of between four and 100 years with a fine of up to $50,000.

In his closing argument Wednesday morning, Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Brett Linneweber argued that Morris had been grooming the girl and gradually escalated physical contact with her.

“It graduated to going into her bedroom … to massaging her breasts,” he said. “It isn’t an immediate, violent rape. That’s not what the state is alleging. But it is the fact that he still touched her privates.”

Billings attorney Paula Saye, who represented Morris in the three-day trial, argued her client admitted to massaging the girl.

She also said Morris admitted to rubbing the girl’s leg after the girl competed in a sporting event. But none of the contact was sexual in nature and any touching of the girl’s private areas was accidental, Saye said.

Several times during the trial, Saye asked Judge Russell Fagg to dismiss the case because the alleged victim and her client had both said there was nothing sexual about the contact. The judge declined to dismiss the case.

Linneweber and Mees presented as evidence a text message Morris sent the girl. They argued he sent the message after the girl accused him of touching her in a sexual way.

“I just wanted u 2 no that i luv & care 4 u as much as (my daughters) & i wd never Ever do anything 2 hurt any of u physically or emotionally,” Morris wrote in the text message. “I will do whatever it takes 2 earn your trust bac. I no i have screwed up & that will never ever happen again. I hope u can forgive me & i can make it better 4 all of us.”

Several witnesses testified that Morris has a bad habit of adjusting himself in the presence of others. Saye said this is what Morris was apologizing about in the text message.

“I represent to you that it’s not a confession of touching,” she said. “It’s not a confession of rubbing up against her vagina. It’s a confession to having the habit of adjusting himself and apologizing to this teenager.”

In his rebuttal to Saye’s closing argument, Linneweber said it was “nonsensical” to think the text was Morris apologizing about adjusting himself.

“The only significant inconsistency in this entire case is his explanation of this text,” Linnewebter said. “That’s it. That is the only significant inconsistency.”

During direct and cross examination, the alleged victim said repeatedly she couldn’t remember certain details of when and how the alleged assaults happened.

She said Morris, while facing her as they were both on her bed, used the backs of his hands to massage her breasts through her clothes.

In her closing argument, Saye said the girl was not a credible witness.

“I represent to you, if you had been sexually abused, you would remember every stinking detail,” she said. “It’s not something that you forget. It’s something that’s with you for your life.”

The last hung jury trial in Yellowstone County was a DUI case tried at the end of last May.

After six hours of deliberation, the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on whether Jerrad Justin Songer, who had four prior DUIs, had driven drunk on Interstate 90 on Oct. 9, 2009.

After the trial, the state served Songer with an amended charge of felony criminal endangerment. He pleaded no contest to the charge on June 17 and was sentenced by District Judge Gregory R. Todd to three years at Montana State Prison on June 28.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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