Jurors clear trooper of Oktibbeha molestation charge|Davenport faces retrial May 11 on Warren County indictments

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 7, 2009

STARKVILLE — A jury of his peers found state trooper Dane Davenport not guilty Friday of molesting a 14-year-old boy in Starkville in September 2007.

‘To sum it up in one word, I’m thankful. I’m thankful

to my God; I’m thankful to the jury, to my legal team and to all my friends and family that have been praying for me.’

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Dane Davenport

It took the jury of seven women and five men 90 minutes to reach its unanimous verdict. A quiet, tense courtroom listened as the verdict was announced, and Davenport raised his hands and looked skyward in relief.

As Circuit Court Judge James Kitchens polled the jury at the request of the attorneys, tears flowed on both sides of the aisle, crowded with family and friends of Davenport on one side, his accusers on the other.

Kitchens thanked the jury and told Davenport he was free.

“To sum it up in one word, I’m thankful,” Davenport said. “I’m thankful to my God; I’m thankful to the jury, to my legal team and to all my friends and family that have been praying for me.” He then huddled up his legal team and supporters, who prayed and sang “The Doxology.”

Davenport, 46, is a master sergeant with the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol who has been on unpaid administrative leave since his indictments in Warren and Oktibbeha counties in January 2008. He faced 15 years in prison if he’d been convicted.

“We’d heard from all over the state about Oktibbeha County, that you couldn’t get an acquittal in this county, and we said nonsense,” lead defense counsel John Zelbst said. “We trust the jury system, and we trusted this jury. We fought hard. There were lots of ups and downs on behalf of the defense, but the truth usually comes out and we think it did in this case.”

The family of the accuser left the courtroom somberly, many in tears. They met in a room near the judge’s chambers, sending word through investigators from the Attorney General’s office that they were not able to make a statement Friday.

Speaking for the prosecution, Attorney General Jim Hood said in an e-mailed statement, “When a victim reports a crime, it is the duty of law enforcement to investigate and, if there is sufficient evidence, present the case to a grand jury. An Oktibbeha County Grand Jury issued an indictment by finding that there was probable cause for the defendant to stand trial. Our prosecutors presented the victim’s case and it was up to the jury to decide. We respect the verdict of the jury.”

Attorneys for both sides summed up their cases Friday morning in final statements to the jury. Lead prosecutor Brandon Ogburn zeroed in on defense claims that the sex abuse charges had been made up by the mother. “Where’s the motive? Who has the benefit from coming here and making false statements?”

He asked the jury to consider whether it was reasonable to make up the accusations, especially for a young teen, and said a young man’s innocence had been lost.

Zelbst appealed to the “reasonable doubt” clause in the law governing verdicts.

He reviewed the testimony of each witness in the case, pointing out inconsistencies and changes in their stories over time. He argued that the fact the mother had made previous false accusations of abuse and that she did not report for more than a week the incident Davenport was indicted on — which she said she witnessed — “defies believability.”

As the jurors filed out of the courthouse after being discharged by Kitchens, one said that in their deliberations they had looked at each item on a list of instructions the judge had given them. They had to find “each of the following”  — referring to the list — true to convict Davenport, the juror said, and they could not do that.

Other jurors declined to comment as they left.

“We’re just glad the jury saw the truth of this matter, and then they came to their verdict — and it didn’t take them long,” said David Haworth, Davenport’s stepfather. “We just appreciate the honesty and diligence of the jurors.”

Davenport faces a retrial May 11 in Vicksburg on the Warren County indictments, which include four counts of sexual battery of a child younger than 14 and five counts of fondling a child younger than 16. That case involves the same youth, as well as his older brother. The case was tried in September and ended in a mistrial when jurors reported they were split “2 to 10” on the verdict. Sources reported the split was in favor of acquittal.

Davenport also stood trial in Starkville last October, when Kitchens declared a mistrial because of improper testimony, which he ruled was “invited error” on the part of Zelbst. This week’s proceeding was a retrial of the case.

“We’re relieved this is over and we’re hopeful we can resolve the Vicksburg case without going to trial,” Zelbst said. “Everybody has suffered a lot over this and, if there’s some way to get it resolved, we’d be open to that. If not, we’ll go do it again in Vicksburg, and when the bell rings we’re going to answer it.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com.