Attorney defends handling of rape case
Defense attorney Denise Rafferty spent roughly 80 minutes on the witness stand Tuesday, defending her handling of the case against a former Aquia Harbour teen now fighting to get his name off the state’s sex-offender registry.
She said she asked Edgar Coker’s parents multiple times for help finding people who would support him in his defense of a 2007 rape charge and for copies of his school records but got no help.
Coker was 15 on June 4, 2007, when he and a 14-year-old neighbor engaged in what the girl and her mother now say was consensual sex.
Attorneys for Coker, who is now 22, are in court this week to try to get his criminal convictions set aside and remove him from the state’s sex offender registry.
The criminal case began that day when the mother returned home from work and saw Coker leaving the home and discovered her daughter getting dressed in her bedroom.
Michele Sousa testified Tuesday that she presumed her daughter had been sexually assaulted and immediately called the Stafford Sheriff’s Office.
Rafferty acknowledged she never asked for the recording of Coker’s interview with a detective and didn’t get a copy of the interview with the accuser, despite saying Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen has “an open-door policy” with her, meaning she’s welcome to all information the office has on her cases.
“I have an open-file policy a lot of other attorneys don’t have,” she said.
She said she hadn’t taken her investigation into Coker’s case further because she was focused on the hearing at which the prosecutor’s office was seeking to try him as an adult.
She said she knew he faced overwhelming odds in preventing the case from moving to adult court because all the prosecution needed to provide at that point was “probable cause” of the crimes.
“They needed only a snowflake and they had an avalanche,” Rafferty testified in Stafford Circuit Court.
Coker’s current attorneys filed a civil suit in Stafford Circuit Court against the Department of Juvenile Justice in August 2009 because he was in their custody at the time.
Rafferty is defending her handling of the case because attorneys are arguing that she violated Coker’s constitutional right to effective counsel.
Coker, now 22 and out of custody, is being represented by the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia law school, the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic, and Just Children/Legal Aid of Charlottesville.
The Virginia attorney general’s office is handling the juvenile justice complaint.
Despite maintaining his innocence, Coker pleaded guilty in August 2007 to charges of rape and breaking and entering in exchange for having an abduction charge dropped and to keep the case in juvenile court.
His father, Edgar Dulaney, feared for his son’s safety if he was sent to an adult prison.
“Mr. Dulaney was wildly, ferociously set on his son never going to an adult jail,” Rafferty testified.
About two months after Coker was sent to a juvenile justice facility for an indeterminate term, Sousa said her daughter told her she lied about the rape to avoid getting into trouble.
Sousa then contacted an attorney and eventually provided Rafferty with a statement from the girl recanting the rape accusation.
But by then, it was too late to successfully appeal the conviction.
Assistant Attorney General Susan Baumgartner questioned Sousa on Tuesday about her motive for pressing her daughter to write a statement denying the rape.
She suggested she wanted her to admit the truth, but Sousa said that wasn’t her focus.
“It’s not about her,” Sousa said. “It’s about this being what happened to him and to being on the sex-offender registry for this.”
Since her daughter recanted her rape allegation, Sousa has sought to rectify what she considers an injustice.
On Tuesday, Coker’s attorneys played recordings of Stafford Detective Gerald Lloyd’s interviews of Coker.
In them, Coker said he came into the home invited and said the girl pursued him physically and they started having intercourse, but he backed away, thinking it was wrong.
The attorneys also played an interview of the girl conducted by Karen Delano of the Department of Social Services, with Lloyd present.
In it, the girl claims Coker began having intercourse with her and she asked him to stop but he wouldn’t.
An issue in the case has been the mental abilities of both Coker and the girl.
Clinical psychologist Jeffrey Aaron testified that Coker is on the borderline of mental retardation.
Sousa testified that her daughter has cerebral palsy and is borderline for mental retardation. Lloyd said one of the girl’s school counselors said she functioned at the fourth- or fifth-grade level.
Coker was charged with committing rape by force, threat or intimidation. However, Rafferty testified Tuesday that Olsen always planned to pursue the charge on the premise the girl lacked the ability to consent to sex.
Lloyd contradicted that, saying it shifted to that after he got the information from the counselor.
The hearing was scheduled to conclude today with Olsen among the witnesses who have been called to testify. A ruling is not expected for weeks.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972