Pressuring Children to Make False Statements Leads to Wrongful Convictions
RALEIGH, N.C. (Nov. 5) - Two women whose testimony in a child molestation case put a man behind bars for 20 years have recanted, with one saying her grandmother pressured them to finger the wrong man to protect a cousin.
The accusers, cousins who were 4 and 6 when they made the charges, were expected to testify Friday that they falsely accused Sylvester Smith, 53. He was given two consecutive life sentences in 1984.
"The system can correct itself when an error is found," said prosecutor Rex Gore, who is requesting a new trial so that he may drop the charges. "We're hoping we can right a wrong."
One victim says the real abuser was a cousin who is now serving a life sentence for murder. Gore said he would not prosecute because the cousin was 9 at the time.
Gov. Mike Easley prosecuted the case when he was Brunswick County district attorney. Easley's spokeswoman, Cari Boyce, said the governor did not have enough information to comment.
At the time of the abuse, the girls were living with Smith, the boyfriend of one of the girls' mothers, in Belville. Prosecutors had strong medical evidence that the girls had been abused, and one had to be treated at a hospital.
One victim now says their grandmother, who has since died, pressured them to accuse Smith rather than the cousin, Gore said.
"The grandmother was trying to protect the other child, who would not have been prosecuted except as a juvenile," Gore said. "Nothing would have happened to him, other than he would have gotten some treatment."
Gore said he first heard from one of the victims this summer, when she wrote that Smith was being punished too harshly.
About two weeks ago, the victim contacted lawyer Roy Trest, who set up a meeting for her with Smith.
Trest said Smith is "obviously very happy and grateful" that the women changed their stories.
Gore said he has no doubt that the women are truthful. The trial transcript shows that under the questioning of a defense attorney the 4-year-old said her grandmother told her to accuse Smith.
If the charges against Smith are dropped, he can petition the governor for a pardon. If one is granted, Smith could be entitled to as much as $400,000 in compensation from the state.
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