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The Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office is still exploring whether to proceed with the case against a Pulaski County sheriff's deputy accused of raping a female inmate who later committed suicide in jail. But it acknowledges difficulties in proceeding.
Jessie Edwards, 28, was found hanging from a sheet in her cell at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center on Aug. 23, three hours after arriving at the jail. She had been ordered held on a contempt of court charge by Circuit Judge Chris Piazza after testing positive for drugs in violation of her terms of release on previous charges related to attempting to obtain prescription drugs by fraud.
According to a sheriff's investigation concluded in January, Edwards told police that on Dec. 18, 2009, while she was being held in the basement cells at the Pulaski County Courthouse awaiting a hearing, Pulaski County Deputy Willie Owens first groped her, then followed her into a cell and had sex with her. Edwards told investigators the sex was not consensual, but said she didn't resist because she was too frightened. Edwards said that when Owens left the room to get a cloth for her to clean up with, she took some of his semen and wiped it on her bra to keep as evidence. Later, the State Crime Lab matched the fluid on Edwards' bra to DNA swabs collected from Owens during the investigation. In January, Owens was arrested on one count of rape — a charge that could send him to jail for up to 10 years. He pleaded not guilty, and was released on $50,000 bail. He was later fired from the sheriff's office after an official hearing.
Lt. Carl Minden, spokesman for the Pulaski County sheriff's office, said the investigation into Edwards' death is still open, but to date officials have given no indication of evidence of foul play.
Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Johnson said that his office is still pursuing the case against Owens, though they are "taking a step back and seeing what we can do with it" in light of Edwards' death. One issue, Johnson said, is that in the case of a rape allegation, penetration must be proven (in the lesser charge of sexual assault, sexual contact of any kind must be proven). Also, though there are statements from Edwards on file regarding her allegations of rape, Johnson said many of those might be thrown out due to an exception to the rules against hearsay testimony. Also problematic, Johnson said, is that prosecutors would have to prove to a jury that the sex that allegedly occurred between Edwards and Owens was non-consensual. Without Edwards' testimony, that could prove exceedingly difficult.
"Just because she's gone doesn't mean we're going to say OK, well, too bad so sad," Johnson said. "We're going to see what we can do, but it certainly made it harder."
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