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Chester County D.A. criticizes overturning of sexual-assault convictions

The Chester County District Attorney's Office has lashed out at an appellate court ruling that overturned the convictions of three men who had been accused of sexually assaulting a West Chester University student two years ago.

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The Chester County District Attorney's Office has lashed out at an appellate court ruling that overturned the convictions of three men who had been accused of sexually assaulting a West Chester University student two years ago.

The ruling by a Superior Court panel late last month took the unusual step of concluding that the evidence in the case did not support the men's conviction. Typically, appeals courts focus on points of law.

In this instance, the panel reviewed the court record, including the young woman's testimony, and found that it was "manifestly unreasonable" to assume the woman had not given her consent to the men's sexual advances.

Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll called the decision "the worst legal reasoning I have ever seen in an appellate court opinion."

Defense attorneys in the case have been equally incensed - for different reasons. Even though the three codefendants posted bail more than a week ago, their releases did not begin until Tuesday.

Len Sosnov, a Widener University law professor, called the panel's ruling "extremely rare."

"Courts are generally extremely reluctant to disturb a verdict," he said, explaining that judging credibility is considered the domain of a jury or, in a nonjury trial, a judge.

The law in Pennsylvania and many other states, however, permits appellate courts to overturn cases where a jury's decision appears "shockingly like an innocent person has been convicted," Sosnov said.

Attorneys for Jason S. Claybrook, 21, of Willow Grove, and Rashid Lewis, 22, and Jamel K. Clay, 21, both of Philadelphia, believe that is what happened.

The defendants have been jailed since 2009, after an 18-year-old West Chester University student accused them of rape. She said she was assaulted in her Sanderson Hall dorm room about 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2009, by the men, whom she had met hours before when they came to visit a dorm mate. She said she was forcibly held down and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

According to testimony at the October 2009 trial, the woman agreed to let the men stay in her room but did not consent to the sexual activity, which occurred for more than an hour.

A Chester County Court jury convicted the men of sexual and indecent assaults and false imprisonment. They were acquitted of rape. The woman's name is being withheld by The Inquirer because of the nature of the offenses.

Chester County Court President Judge James P. MacElree 2d sentenced the defendants to two to four years.

On appeal, a three-judge Superior Court panel took issue with MacElree's decision to deny a defense motion for a new trial after the verdict.

"Unlike Judge MacElree, when we assess the central question in this case . . . we find it manifestly unreasonable to view the evidence" and conclude that the woman did not consent, the panel said, ordering a new trial.

The ruling pointed out that "other than her contention that she initially said no to Lewis' attempt to kiss her, during an hour of sexual activity," she did not cry for help or try to escape. It also pointed out that she invited the men to stay in her room and that her "physical injuries were minor."

The panel's reasoning drew outrage from the Chester County District Attorney's Office, which has asked the entire Superior Court to review the issue.

The victim "was being held down and raped by three, larger, male assailants" and unable "to talk or move," the District Attorney's Office contended in its Superior Court petition. It also questioned the fairness of second-guessing the jury, which had the benefit of seeing "the faces and demeanors" of witnesses.

Carroll said the panel concluded that "a sexual-assault victim is not to be believed unless her injuries are severe enough to meet some Stone Age standard of proof of resistance. . . . That's ridiculous."

On May 26, MacElree lowered the defendants' bail from $100,000 each to $1,000 plus electronic monitoring, which all three posted. However, because of questions about the ongoing litigation, the state did not immediately release them.

"From the minute the release order was signed, my client's rights have been trampled," said defense attorney Thomas J. Wagner, who represents Claybrook.

Wagner, who threatened to file a contempt petition against the Department of Corrections, said his client was released Tuesday. Assistant Public Defender Meredith D. Copeland was informed that Lewis would be freed Wednesday and Mark Rassman, counsel for Clay, said he expected his client to be released "within a day or two."

Rassman described his client as "cautiously optimistic" that his ordeal is over.

"The Superior Court all but exonerated them," Rassman said of the defendants, all of whom have served their prison minimum. "They should be released; I just hope they don't get dragged back in."

Carroll said he was hopeful that the entire - or "en banc" - Superior Court would reverse the panel's ruling; however, he acknowledged that the appellate court declines to hear the majority of cases.

"It has been our experience that a grant of en banc reargument is not an unusual occurrence where, as here, the panel decision at issue deviates so significantly from prior precedent on a given subject," he wrote.