After two days of testimony, former Benton Police Department Lt. Monte Hodge exited a Saline County court a free man Wednesday afternoon after being acquitted of sexual-abuse charges involving a minor.
A seven-man, five-woman jury took about 50 minutes to decide to acquit Hodge on three counts of rape and two counts of second-degree sexual battery. The case was heard in Saline County Circuit Court in front of special-appointed Judge John Langston.
The now 19-year-old accuser had said the sexual abuse lasted for nearly a decade, starting at age 7. The teen reported the allegations Oct. 25, 2013, to officials at the Cooper-Anthony Mercy Child Advocacy Center in Hot Springs.
Hodge, 43, surrendered to authorities Jan. 22, 2014, on one rape charge and was released on bond. The 18-year veteran of the Benton Police Department was placed on administrative leave Oct. 26, 2013, and was later fired.
Hodge declined to comment after the verdict was read. Holding back tears, he hugged his Little Rock defense attorney, Bobby Digby, before joining his family and departing the courtroom.
"We hope that this lets people know to wait until they hear everything before they convict somebody," Digby said.
The trial started Tuesday morning, and jurors heard from both the accuser and Hodge during Wednesday's testimony.
Taking the stand in the afternoon, Hodge answered several times with a firm, "No," when Digby asked whether the teen's allegations were true.
"He is lying," Hodge said.
"We were always going to put Monte on the stand," Digby said after the trial. "He said, 'I didn't do this, and I'm going to get up and say I didn't do it.' That's his decision. That's his call, and that's what was coming."
On Wednesday morning, the teen testified that the abuse began after Hodge went into his room and forced him to touch Hodge. When the teen was 10, Hodge started having sex with him, he testified. Hodge also once forced the teen at age 15 or 16 to perform a sexual act on him in a vehicle near Bauxite, he said.
"It felt disgusting," the teen said. "I felt ashamed. I was always afraid."
The teen said he didn't come forward earlier because Hodge said no one would believe him, and Hodge threatened him. He said he finally came forward because he "just really wanted [the abuse] to stop."
Throughout the teen's nearly two-hour testimony, Hodge alternated between looking at the teen and jotting on a yellow legal pad.
During cross-examination, Digby pointed out discrepancies in the teen's story. Digby played a videotape of the teen being interviewed in October 2013 by a forensic interviewer, highlighting differences between his testimony and the videotape.
Digby asked why the teen suffered a decade of abuse -- never alerting family members, teachers, friends or therapists -- before telling his grandmother, who took him to the Hot Springs center. Digby told the jury that no one had ever recognized the abuse that the teen said he suffered, including what the teen alleged was physical abuse from Hodge.
Digby's cross-examination also questioned the teen on the number of sexual assaults that purportedly occurred between the ages of 10 and 17. The teen said the assaults were as frequent as two to three times a week for seven years. Digby said that meant there would have been between 728 and 1,092 sexual assaults in the course of seven years, adding the teen wasn't around Hodge that much during that time period.
During his closing argument, Digby told the jury, "It's hard to remember the details when you're making them up."
Before leaving the stand Wednesday morning, prosecutor Rachel McWhorter asked the teen whether he'd told the truth.
"Yes," the teen said.
McWhorter and fellow prosecutor John Huggins were specially appointed to the case out of the Lonoke County prosecutor's office.
On the first day of the trial, prosecutors introduced as witnesses a sexual-assault nurse and state Crime Laboratory forensic DNA examiner, who testified that there was no physical evidence linking Hodge to the teen's allegations.
State Desk on 07/16/2015