01:00 AM EDT on Friday, July 30, 2010
SOUTH KINGSTOWN –– Two University of Rhode Island students were acquitted Thursday of sexually assaulting a woman in the Wiley Hall dormitory in 2008.
Jurors started deliberating at 2:05 p.m. in Washington County Superior Court, and it was about 3:30 p.m. when they returned with their verdicts.
“Not guilty” the foreman stated twice. Defendant Estifanos Gizaw hugged his lawyer, Robert Caron, and Yaw Peprah shook the hand of his lawyer, Roy Fowler.
Peprah, of Lincoln, and Gizaw, of South Kingstown, were sophomores in 2008. The woman was a freshman but is no longer a URI student.
The woman had testified that Peprah forced her to have sexual intercourse even though she said no and told him to stop. She said she had drunk eight or nine shots of vodka that night at a dorm suite party and was incapable of moving to the bedroom.
The woman said Gizaw also forced oral sex on her despite telling him no. Another student at the time, Marina Melillo, then briefly sexually assaulted her, she alleged. Melillo has been indicted, and the case is pending.
Peprah said he asked several times if the woman wanted to have sex and that she indicated she did. Outside the dorm, he testified, she exhaled marijuana smoke and told him to kiss her to breathe it in. He said the two also kissed in an elevator.
Gizaw described what he and the woman did as consensual.
Jake Toole, a friend of the woman’s, testified that she was shaking and upset when she told him the day after the party that she had been raped. The two were going to do laundry and watch a Harry Potter movie the night of the party, but when she didn’t return from the party, he grew worried. They exchanged text messages around 1 a.m. on Sept. 14.
Fowler suggested in his closing argument that the woman had been embarrassed about the sexual acts with the two men and the woman, a “morning-after syndrome.”
Fowler said “it defies reason” that the woman moved around at the party, walked in and out of the dorm, but “all of a sudden, at the moment of sexual intercourse” was unable to move. She did not yell for help, dial 911, or attempt to leave the dorm during the night, he said.
Caron recounted Marisa Cherry’s testimony that the alleged victim and Peprah were in bed and that the woman said, “I feel so good.”
“Hardly the words of an immobilized victim [that the woman] said she was when she testified at trial,” Caron told the jury.
The defense lawyers noted a nurse-practitioner’s testimony that there was no bruising or semen found when she reported the alleged rape.
Prosecutor Stephen A. Regine suggested that Peprah and Gizaw picked out the woman as a “mark” for sex.
Regine asked the jury why they heard the phrase “are you OK?” again and again, including from defense witnesses. “Because she wasn’t,” he said. “She really, really wasn’t.”
Michael J. Healey, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, stated the burden of proof was high, “and the jury found pretty quickly that we didn’t meet it. We did our best to pursue justice for the alleged victim.”