COA allows rape case to proceed 35 years after incident

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A Lake County man charged with multiple rapes 35 years after they occurred failed to convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that his due process rights were violated and that the decadeslong delay was unjustified.

In 1984, Joel Williams Jr. was charged with participating in several Gary home invasions involving robbery, rape and sexual assault. Williams was eventually convicted of multiple counts of robbery and sentenced to an aggregate of 45 years behind bars.

During the same time frame as the Gary robberies, a similar home invasion took place in Hobart during which three victims were raped by three men while being held at knifepoint and gunpoint.

Williams was one of the men accused of raping the women. Two months after the incident, he was arrested for the rapes and robberies in Gary.

The Hobart victims immediately submitted sexual assault kits for testing after the incident, but those kits were returned unexamined by Great Lakes Forensic Laboratories in May 1984.

During a subsequent lineup containing Williams, the victims could not positively identify him as one of the men who entered their residence. However, they recognized his voice and said he had a similar build to one of the attackers.

Williams, who was 17 at the time of the robberies and rapes, indicated to police after the lineup that he had participated in the Hobart home invasion with the other men.

Meanwhile, the victims’ sexual assault kits were submitted to the Indiana State Police Lab for analysis. Although the examination revealed hairs that were not inconsistent with the perpetrators’ hair and seminal fluid on several items of evidence, analysts concluded further analysis of the items could not be conducted “due to the lack of suspect standards for comparison.”

More than three decades later in 2018, testing was performed on one of the Hobart victim’s sexual assault kits and revealed a match to Williams. As a result, the state charged Williams with two counts of rape and two counts of criminal deviate conduct in 2019.

Williams moved to dismiss the charges, asserting a violation of his due process rights because of the delay. But the Lake Superior Court denied that motion.

Following oral arguments last month, the COA affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss on interlocutory appeal in Joel Williams, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-1581.

The unanimous appellate panel found that although Williams showed that Irene Comsa, an assumed clerk who signed the form when the sexual assault kits were returned to Hobart police in May 1984, was deceased, he failed to show how she would have helped his defense if she were alive today.

It similarly rejected Williams’ argument that one of his co-assailants was deceased and, therefore, Williams was prejudiced by being unable to obtain that individuals’ DNA. One of the victims was raped by two men, the appellate court observed, adding that “identification of the second man does not alter the result of the testing that identified Williams.”

The appellate court further pointed out that Williams demonstrated no effort to locate, contact or question the ISP lab analysts to support his claim of their unavailability for questioning.

“Therefore, we find that, with regard to the deceased witnesses, Williams has not established that they likely possessed information that would aid his defense,” Senior Judge John Baker wrote. “Furthermore, he has not established the unavailability of the remaining witnesses. Accordingly, we conclude that Williams has not demonstrated that he will suffer actual and substantial prejudice to his right to a fair trial as a result of the delay in charging him.”

The COA also rejected as “sheer speculation” his claim that charging him with the Hobart rapes 35 years after they occurred was fundamentally unfair.

“While we agree that thirty-five years is a substantial delay, we are constrained to abide by the precedent set by our Supreme Court,” Baker wrote, citing Ackerman v. State, 51 N.E.3d 171 (Ind. 2016), throughout the opinion. “In doing so, we conclude Williams has not demonstrated the required prejudice and therefore has not established that the evidence is without conflict and leads inescapably to the conclusion that he was entitled to dismissal. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s denial of Williams’ motion to dismiss and remand.”

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