A La Plata High School student was found guilty Thursday of raping a classmate in a bathroom at the school--a crime he denied committing, even as the judge issued his verdict.
Henry Aaron Downs, 17, collapsed into his seat and sobbed, "I didn't do it. It didn't happen!" after Charles County Circuit Judge Christopher C. Henderson declared him guilty and ordered him to remain in his La Plata home until his sentencing Sept. 17.
Downs faces up to 41 years in prison for second-degree rape and other related offenses. The girl is not identified because The Washington Post generally does not identify victims in sexual assault cases.
According to testimony, Downs and the girl were in the school on Nov. 6, 1998, after classes had recessed for the day--he to watch a football game, she for band practice.
The two were talking in a courtyard on school grounds before the rape occurred, according to testimony from several La Plata High School students. The prosecutor and Downs's defense attorney painted different pictures of what happened next.
According to Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Stiglitz, Downs forced the victim, then 16, into a girls' bathroom, locked the door and raped her. Under questioning from his attorney, Frank Olmsted, Downs maintained that the girl consented to having sex with him. Olmsted argued that there was no physical evidence that would indicate rape.
Sharon Kiessling, a registered nurse who conducted several tests on the victim, testified that the only physical evidence was a small bruise in the girl's pelvic area.
When Downs was confronted by a school administrator and then a police officer shortly after the incident, he denied having any contact with the victim. In court, Downs testified he had consensual sex with the girl after talking and kissing for about five minutes. Henderson said he based his verdict on what he thought was the most credible testimony.
After the hearing, members of Downs's family converged on the courthouse steps, crying. Downs's mother, Delores Downs, said the judge's ruling was racially biased. Downs is African American, and the victim is white.
"This happens all the time," said Delores Downs, who worked as a teacher at La Plata High for eight years. "Any time something happens between black kids and white kids, it's the black kids who get put out of school."
Stiglitz disagreed that race was an issue in the trial and pointed out that several female students who testified they had been sexually harassed by the defendant were African American.
"To say this was a racial case avoids the real issue here--a forced sexual encounter," he said. "This was a fair trial."
Olmsted, the defense attorney, declined to comment. The victim now lives out of state and won't return to La Plata High in the fall, Stiglitz said.