NH jury gets 1997 teen church rape case

By LYNNE TUOHY, The Associated Press
Posted May 26, 2011, at 9:27 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — A New Hampshire jury began deliberating Thursday whether a man forcibly raped and impregnated his children’s 15-year-old baby sitter in 1997.

The case has drawn wide attention because of accusations that the pastor of the Baptist church both attended made the girl apologize to the congregation for getting pregnant out of wedlock, then helped move her to the home of a church family in Colorado and arranged to put the baby up for adoption.

Concord police were forced to shelve their investigation into the rape allegation when they could not locate the girl for questioning. They recently found her through online posts and reopened the case.

Ernest Willis, 52, of Gilford, has pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape, acknowledging the girl was under the legal age of consent.

Willis testified that the two had sex on only one occasion, it was consensual and that no force was used. Prosecutors say he raped the teen twice, and used force or ignored her pleas to stop on both occasions.

The 12 jurors deliberated for just under an hour before court closed Thursday. They are scheduled to return to court Friday, after hearing four days of testimony.

Both Willis and the teen attended Concord’s Trinity Baptist Church. The case was shelved until last year, when online tips helped authorities find her in Arizona.

A lawyer for Willis told jurors during final arguments Thursday that the accuser has changed her story since 1997 so she would “look more like a victim.”

Defense attorney Donna Brown argued that Tina Anderson never said in 1997 that Willis forced himself on her. Brown noted Anderson’s testimony that she had trouble remembering everything that happened 14 years ago.

The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Anderson asked that her name be used. The case has drawn national attention because of its circumstances.

At the close of his testimony Thursday, Willis denied that he offered to take Anderson out of state and to pay for an abortion. He also said he did not offer to punch her hard in the stomach to induce a miscarriage.

“I never said that in any way, shape or form,” Willis testified.

Merrimack Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler initially barred prosecutors from questioning Willis about the offers, saying they were irrelevant in light of Willis’s statutory rape plea.

But Smukler ruled Thursday that Willis opened himself up to the questions by testifying Wednesday that he would never harm the girl.

Prosecutor Wayne Coull argued that Anderson’s mother and Phelps sent her to live with strangers against her will and ignored her pleas to go live with her grandparents in Texas. He also noted that Phelps had her stand before the congregation and apologize for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

“What happened to Tina at the hands of those people in her life is why she kept that secret for so long,” Coull said. “She got shamed, shunned silenced and sent away.”

Brown argued that was all the more reason for Anderson to shift the blame to Willis by saying her forcibly raped her and offered to help abort the fetus.

“It happened one time and there was no force — that’s what Tina said in 1997,” Brown said.

Coull reminded jurors that Anderson did nothing to re-open the investigation. In 2010, he said, she was married with three children, had a master’s degree and was teaching music at a Baptist college in Arizona.

“She doesn’t have to go back down this road,” Coull said.

Brown said that “convicting Ernie Willis of something he didn’t do because of sympathy to Tina will add one more wrong to a case that has too many wrongs already.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/05/26/news/nh-jury-gets-1997-teen-church-rape-case/ printed on July 25, 2014