The rape case involving 18-year-old Spanish Fort High School student Cameron Harrison will head to a grand jury after prosecutors from the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office were able to establish probable cause in front of Judge J. Clark Stankoski at a preliminary hearing today in Bay Minette.
Harrison is charged with the first-degree rape of a 16-year-old fellow Spanish Fort High School student at a house party in the Timber Creek neighborhood of Daphne in October. The case will now head to a grand jury in late January or early February according to Assistant District Attorney Audrey Chalea Tisdale, who said all evidence against Harrison will be presented at that time.
Much of the defense’s case on Tuesday focused on the definitions of “unconscious” and “mentally incapacitated” and many of the defense’s dozen witnesses were asked by attorneys John Beck and Michael Dasinger to describe the victim’s level of inebriation at the party on the night of the alleged rape. In comments at the end of the hearing, Stankoski said the fact the victim’s state of inebriation was up for debate was enough to convince him the case should move forward.
“This is a 16-year-old girl and we are using terms like ‘drunk, sloppy drunk, intoxicated’ and those are terms which, when related to a 16-year-old, I find there is certainly probable cause,” Stankoski said.
The first testimony of the day came from Daphne Police Cpl. Jason Vannoy, the arresting officer in the case, who detailed his interviews with the victim and witnesses in the days after the alleged rape occurred. According to Vannoy, a 15-year veteran of the Daphne Police Department with 10 years of experience as an investigator, he was first contacted by a Department of Human Resources case worker about the incident three or four days after it allegedly occurred.
Afterward, Vannoy said he met with the victim’s mother, then talked to a female witness about the incident at Spanish Fort High School. While at the school, Vannoy also interviewed the teenage resident of the home where the party occurred.
Vannoy told the court the victim became inebriated to the point where one of her friends asked for help carrying the victim to an upstairs bedroom, where the alleged rape occurred. According to Vannoy the victim, who was not present at the hearing, told him she remembers everything up to the point of taking her first few drinks at the party and “passing out” in the living room.
Tisdale explained the victim was not present because her testimony wasn’t necessary to prove probable cause.
“I don’t call victims to a preliminary hearing unless it is absolutely necessary,” Tisdale said. “Cpl. Vannoy was able to testify to everything that’s been acceptable in 99 percent of my cases, so that’s what we did.”
Dozens of Spanish Fort High School students, including a handful of football players, were present at the hearing in a show of support for Harrison. As the courtroom cleared at the end of the hearing, some of the students tried to block media from taking pictures and video of Harrison, but were stopped by a deputy.
“The victim is a teenager in a school dominated by a football team,” Tisdale continued. “This is one of their football players and she, as you’ve seen in the media, has taken pressure and she didn’t want to deal with that.”
According to Vannoy’s testimony Harrison told other students he had sex with the alleged victim at the party. According to Vannoy, Harrison also sought advice from Spanish Fort teacher Gene Ponder. On Wednesday Vannoy clarified that Harrison sought advice from Ponder a few days after the incident and his brief interview was the extent of the teacher’s involvement with the case.
On Wednesday, Ponder emphasized he was not the first person at the school to contact authorities. He also said when Harrison asked for his advice, he suggested Harrison talk to the alleged victim’s parents, which Harrison had already done.
Ponder said he was concerned Vannoy’s testimony would lead some to believe he was more involved in the case. Ponder also said he had no knowledge or insight into the investigation when Harrison sought his advice.
“I certainly have not chosen a side and what is happening is a tragedy on all sides,” Ponder explained. “At the time I was grateful [Harrison] had enough respect for me to come to me for advice, but now I do have some regrets. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve chosen a side.”
On the stand Vannoy also said Harrison went to the alleged victim’s house to apologize to her parents, but told them the sexual encounter was a consensual “three-way,” which one witness later denied. Vannoy also quoted Harrison as telling the victim’s parents “I only did your daughter for five minutes.”
Last week, Beck revealed to media outlets that the victim sent Harrison a Snapchat message saying “u didn’t rape me,” but Vannoy’s testimony revealed the rest of the message from the victim to Harrison said the former Toros running back did “take advantage of me.” Vannoy also said witnesses told him Harrison apologized to the victim and asked her to “keep it on the down low.”
Beck cross examined Vannoy and showed the investigator a video purporting to show the victim laughing and smiling while being carried by friends to the upstairs of the home. The video has not been shown to the press.
While at least two female witnesses seemed to corroborate Vannoy’s testimony, other defense witnesses told different stories. One male witness told the court the victim initiated sex with Harrison and one female witness admitted to collecting pro-Harrison statements at a Spanish Fort High School basketball game, then giving them to Harrison’s attorneys. Other witnesses contradicted each other about who was in the room and where the victim was at different times at the party.
Tisdale said the contradicting testimonies could signal some defense witnesses aren’t reliable.
“I think a lot of them contradicted themselves right out of their testimony,” she said.
Dasinger said the witness testimonies proved their are holes in the prosecution’s case.
“I think there are a lot of conflicts in their case,” he said. “Everything we laid out and expected the evidence to show today has come forth.”
At least two male witnesses admitted on the stand to purposely avoiding calls from Vannoy, the lead investigator in the case.
“There certainly have been witnesses who have not cooperated and have deliberately avoided coming in to talk to investigators,” Tisdale said. “I would think if they really wanted to help their friend they would talk to us. We will deal with that as it comes.”
Following the hearing, Tisdale said she is confident the state will be able to successfully prosecute the case. Beck said probable cause is a low threshold to cross and he is confident the truth about the incident will come out.
“All it takes is one witness to say something happened even though it’s not true,” Beck said. “We want the facts to come out. We want anybody that knows anything to come forward and say exactly what happened that night. The overwhelming evidence in this hearing backed up what we’ve been saying all along.”
UPDATE: This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. on Nov. 25 to clarify details about Gene Ponder’s interview with Cpl. Vannoy.
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