CANTON — A Canton youth pastor was sentenced Friday for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl. The minister was given the minimum prison term required by state statute -- four years.
Jason Phillips, 36, a youth pastor and associate pastor at Covenant Community Fellowship Church, had been found guilty of one felony count of criminal sexual assault in April. State law mandated a sentence of four to 15 years in prison; probation was not an option.
The prosecution recommended 10 years, citing psychological and emotional distress suffered by the victim. Phillips made an open statement proclaiming his innocence.
In addition to the prison term, 85 percent of which he must complete with credit for time already served in jail, Phillips was ordered serve three years of supervised release, pay fines and restitution and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Allegations against the pastor came to light in May 2010. The offenses occurred six months or more earlier. Peoria attorney Kevin Sullivan, representing the defense, said he had argued in his opening statement at trial the girl waited six to 11 months to allege being touched inappropriately.
Phillips had been arrested May 19, 2010, for having sexual contact with a girl between the ages of 13 and 17 following a nine-day investigation by police, which included reviewing phone calls and text messages and conducting interviews. Police said he had sexual contact with the girl on several occasions, but not at the church, and sexual intercourse did not occur.
Before the sentencing hearing began Friday, supporters of Phillips stood outside the courthouse carrying signs and wearing T-shirts with messages like "beyond a reasonable doubt" on the front and "free Jason" on the back. They changed shirts before going into the courthouse, a county deputy said. They were "pretty good" in how they conducted themselves, the deputy added.
The courtroom was packed, with standing room only after extra chairs were provided.
During proceedings, Sullivan asked if he could present witnesses noted in his post-trial motion. Assistant State's Attorney Susan Maxwell objected, saying affidavits she reviewed in the motion were not admissible and no new information would be presented other than old information not brought up at trial.
Sullivan argued the court should be mindful of the "veracity of witnesses." He said the victim testified at trial, but subsequent to the trial and verdict, people came forward and made statements about the victim. They volunteered information that the offenses did not occur and the girl testified untruthfully. There is always a question of veracity on the part of the complainant, he said.
Maxwell countered a 1991 case found that impeaching or contradicting a witness after a trial does not affect the trial outcome or result in a new trial.
Sullivan said appellate courts have reversed decisions where people were not credible -- even exonerated suspects. He added he was not familiar with the case Maxwell cited.
Circuit Judge William Davis said he would grant the defense request and not prohibit the testimony, but this was taking the court and state by surprise. It is better to be prepared and follow the law. The defense could proceed pending further objections by the state, he said.
A 17-year-old male said he knew the complainant for three years and had dated her sister. He said he discussed the allegations with the complainant last summer in her car at the Walmart store in Canton. He said two other persons were also present. He said the girl told him she was tired of not being around Phillips as much, not babysitting for him as much and not getting her way. And she told him "it was a lie;" Phillips didn't do anything, he testified.
The teen said he was close friends with Phillips, who had helped his family and was "a great guy." He said he had never seen Phillips do anything immoral.
In cross-examination, Maxwell asked him how long he had known Phillips and why he had never said anything before to help the defendant.
He answered he had known Phillips four or five years through the church. The teen also said, "I didn't want to say anything about it. I didn't talk to anybody about it."
On re-direct examination, Sullivan asked him why he never talked about it.
"It was just hard to talk about it," he said.
Another witness, Staff Sgt. Wayne Morgan of the U.S. Army National Guard, said he had known Phillips from church and personally about 10 years. A communications specialist, he would testify about cellular telephone text messages and how easy it is to change them.
Maxwell objected, saying questions about authenticity had already been considered at trial, and this could have been brought up then.
Sullivan argued the issue could be raised in post-trial and available for appeal. He added the victim was "sketchy at best" in her testimony about the true source of text messages from Phillips.
Davis overruled the objection.
The witness testified he was skilled at repairing electronic devices. He served in Iraq in 2007 and worked on cell phone jamming, so the enemy could not set off roadside bombs. He said he now seeks an electrical engineering degree.
He said no expertise was needed to change cell phone text messages; probably 20 million people could do it. He said he could create a text message in five minutes with a time stamp so it looked like it was made two weeks ago, as well as take out words to edit it. Numerous applications can be downloaded from the Internet to alter a text message, or it can be done directly from the Internet itself, he said.
Morgan noted cell phone carrier records would show if a text message had been manipulated or not.
Under cross-examination, Morgan said he had never talked about this with Phillips. He also said nothing about his testimony was classified. "A 17-year-old kid I talked to a few minutes ago can do it and has done it," he said about altering text messages.
Maxwell then presented a female witness who identified herself by the initials K.E. after taking the stand. She said she did not talk to a teen about Phillips in the Walmart parking lot last summer and did not recall being with the teen at Walmart. She also said she never threatened him if he testified.
In post-trial arguments, Sullivan said the only competent witness who testified at trial was the complainant, and her testimony was illogical and implausible, where events occurred in different places and with different persons present.
"The physical evidence simply does not line up," he said. Don't expect her to admit she lied -- look at the bias, the motive, the opportunity, he urged. Give Phillips the same credibility. Look at her demands for restitution in the victim impact statement. Read between the lines. In the alternative of acquittal, grant a new trial. She admitted to deleting two text messages and the ones kept were "only generic." The "rule of completes" requires having what came before and after, not just what was provided, Sullivan said.
Maxwell said despite misstatements made about the victim and attempts to change her story, she has been "steadfast" on where the incidents took place. Evidence offered Friday was not enough to grant the defendant a new trial. Maxwell pointed out texts sent to the girl were read as they were received on her phone by another person who was a school official. No evidence was presented to show the 15-year-old girl had the expertise to manipulate text messages. Also, testimony Friday should have been presented at trial.
Maxwell read the victim impact statement aloud, saying while the girl suffered no physical injuries, several impacts occurred. Her mother and she underwent counseling numerous times, which cost over $500 in travel and meal expenses. She endured hateful comments and stares from others. She was no longer able to work at a job at a restaurant due to death threats. She cried a lot and said she was a loner in her room. She had suicidal thoughts but was getting better, yet she had to deal with the situation on a daily basis.
She missed several days of school. She became afraid to leave her home for fear of what people will do. She no longer attended church or trusted God or religious persons. She regarded men differently than she did. "I have become a completely different person than what I was," the statement read by Maxwell said.
The assistant state's attorney also said aggravating factors applied. Phillips was a professional, representing a position of trust to young people. He served as a surrogate father figure for a period of time. He allowed girls to stay at his home for extended periods, including overnight stays. Maxwell said a sentence against Phillips was necessary to deter others from committing the same crime.
Sullivan said there no deterrent factor, because the state legislature had "usurped" that from the court by mandating a prison sentence upon conviction. He also pointed out Phillips had no history of delinquency or criminal conduct. If probation were possible, Phillips would probably follow the rules of it. Prison will be a hardship for his wife and two young children. The victim did not conduct herself to avoid problems, and though she was not of age to recognize adult responsibilities, she acted "beyond her years," he said.
Phillips, who did not testify at trial, was asked if he wished to make a statement by the judge. He stood up and said he has been a citizen of Fulton County for 32 years and had the utmost respect for judges and the judicial system, but he was "confused with the outcome of the trial." He proclaimed his innocence and said his wife would not be in court standing beside him if he were guilty. His "church family" was there, too.
As a youth minister, he said he has been alone with children many times. Never has he been in this position. He said he hoped his character and reputation spoke for himself. Phillips said the court was sentencing an innocent man, a family-loving husband, a father, a church-loving pastor. "My greatest desire is serving the fine citizens of Fulton County," he said.
Davis said he could not say the jury was wrong based on the evidence presented. He must go by the law and give a prison sentence. But for the one charge Phillips has been convicted of, he has led a law-abiding life, done good work and helped many people. The victim has suffered, also. Weighing all things together, he issued the sentence and advised Phillips of his appeal rights.
Phillips' father has told the Ledger an appeal will be sought.
Kevin VanTine, senior pastor of the church, said, "He continues to be a pastor at our church until this is done." He added the church supports Phillips spiritually and emotionally. It has not supported him financially for legal expenses for ethical reasons, VanTine explained.