A Circuit Court jury acquitted a Columbia man this week of charges he fondled a 15-year-old Laurel girl while posing as a professional photographer.
Jurors deliberated 90 minutes before acquitting 29-year-old Richard Charles of child abuse, sex-offense and battery charges in the first of six similar cases.
Circuit Judge James B. Dudley ruled Monday that the cases would be tried separately, a move that prosecutors said significantly harmed their case.
During the trial, prosecutors presented a May 1995 confession that Mr. Charles signed, admitting that he touched the teen-ager's genital area.
Defense attorneys argued that Mr. Charles, a Haitian native who does not speak English fluently, did not think he was signing a confession, but rather acknowledging he was aware of the teen-ager's allegations against him.
The jury's decision Tuesday left the defense elated.
"I'm very happy for my client," said Jason Shapiro, the attorney for Mr. Charles.
Mr. Shapiro said state prosecutors "shot their big case at us. We feel that justice was served."
Prosecutors now must prepare the five remaining cases set for next month.
"We have to educate our citizens that touching children in a sexual way is an unlawful act," Assistant State's Attorney Mary Reese said.
While prosecutors alleged in court that Mr. Charles plotted to fondle the teen while she modeled, defense attorneys questioned the teen-ager's credibility and motivation.
Mr. Shapiro painted the victim as an alcoholic who became angry with Mr. Charles when he refused to buy her liquor.
Her testimony was inconsistent about the exact nature of the fondling, he said.
The prosecution's biggest setback came before the trial began, when Judge Dudley ruled Monday that all six cases had to be tried separately.
Prosecutors had hoped to present the testimony of all the females -- who tell similar stories about being fondled -- but the judge said trying the cases together would prejudice the jury against Mr. Charles.
The defense agreed. "By severing the cases, it gave my guy a fair trial," Mr. Shapiro said. "This allowed us to have a fighting chance."
Ms. Reese said Mr. Charles had the six females pose for pictures in area parks or at his house and then tell them underwear lines were visible. Under the guise of fixing their clothes, Mr. Charles BTC would fondle them, said Ms. Reese said.
In the case tried Monday, Ms. Reese said, Mr. Charles told the teen-ager his touch was designed to sexually excite her so she would look better in the photos.
In addition to the five remaining sex-offense cases, Mr. Charles faces a variety of other charges.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Charles is an illegal immigrant who is being investigated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for having a fraudulent green card, court records show.
Mr. Charles has also been charged with insurance fraud.
In that case, investigators allege that Mr. Charles used an alias "Jeanky Georges" and has two driver's licenses -- one with the name Jeanky Georges and the other with the name Robert Charles.
The remaining sex-offense cases and the insurance fraud case are set to be tried in May.
Pub Date: 4/11/96