By Amie Sites Pharos-Tribune
---- — Zachary Bell smiled when a Cass County jury declared him not guilty Friday afternoon.
After three days on trial, Bell, 22, of Logansport, was found not guilty of child molestation. Bell was facing the class B felony in an incident that occurred Feb. 6, 2011, at Logan Roller Rink.
A 12-year-old girl’s mother went to police after the incident to report her daughter had been sexually assaulted.
Bell, who reportedly admitted he had sexual intercourse with the girl, said he was unaware of her age until after the incident.
Defense had to prove there was subjective belief the girl was 14 years or older and that such belief was reasonable under the circumstances.
In final arguments, Lisa Swaim, prosecuting attorney, said Bell had sex with the girl, knowing her age. Swaim mentioned testimony from others who said they knew her age, showed jury members a school photo of the girl and said she didn’t believe the defendant thought the girl was 14 or older and brought up instances of other people at the roller rink stating they knew she was 12 years old.
In attorney Matthew Barrett’s closing argument for the defense, he told jury members they were the ones to determine what was right in the case.
Barrett said Bell mistakenly thought she was older. Barrett said his client was led to believe that because the girl appeared to have no curfew, was around older people and had Facebook and Myspace pages displaying an older age.
Barrett said the first time Bell learned the girl’s age was when he was interviewed by Jill Rife of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department. A video played in the court room displayed Bell crying when he was told her age.
Barrett noted the question was not if Bell had intercourse, but was about if he believed she was 14 years or older. Barrett asked the jury to find Bell not guilty of the charge he has been battling for more than two years.
“It’s not about winning at all costs, it’s about doing what’s right,” Barrett said. “Don’t brand him a felon.”
Swaim responded to Barrett’s closing argument by saying, “I can’t make the defendant a child molester, the defendant’s actions make him a child molester.”
The jury deliberated for two hours and 10 minutes.
Cass Superior II Judge Rick Maughmer presided over Bell’s case.
After the verdict, Swaim said she couldn’t say for sure because she didn’t talk to any jurors, but she thinks it’s possible the verdict had much to do with the instruction in this particular case.
The instruction Swaim referred to was that even if the defendant commits child molest, if he believes the victim is 14 years or older and the belief is reasonable under the circumstances, he must be found not guilty.
Swaim said she disagreed with the instructions, but knew why they were given.
“To me, the law as it stands fails victims,” Swaim said. “ I think the state law needs to be reviewed and I will be following up on it.”
“Mr. Bell and I are very pleased with the not guilty verdict,” Barrett said after the verdict Friday. “He has always maintained his innocence and we are grateful the jury saw that as well. He plans to move forward with his life.”
Amie Sites is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.