TAMPA — Officials took swift action when a boy said he had been sexually assaulted by classmates in a Walker Middle School locker room.
A detective spoke with the victim for only six minutes. Within hours, four teen boys were in jail, staring at the prospect of adult charges of felony sexual battery.
Nearly 16 months later, the criminal case is half of what it was.
Two of the boys now face only felony battery charges. One of those two is expected to receive juvenile sanctions. If the other successfully completes a pretrial intervention program, his charges will be dropped.
The remaining two boys are headed to trial Sept. 13.
Prosecutors say it's their job in every case to seek justice, not just convictions.
But with inconsistent witness statements and no physical evidence linking the suspects to a sex crime, defense lawyers question the aggressive approach.
"I believe that it was a rush to judgment," said Norman Cannella Sr., one boy's attorney.
"Absolutely not," Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said.
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On the morning of May 6, 2009, school officials initially thought they had a bullying incident on their hands.
A teacher pulled four eighth-graders — Diemante Roberts, 15; Raymond Price-Murray, 14; Lee Myers, 14; and Randall Moye, 14 — from homeroom. She asked them to write down what had happened with a 13-year-old flag football teammate who the night before had said he was tired of getting picked on by them.
Roberts, a special-needs student, did not write well. Dictating his version of events to a coach, Roberts said: "We put the broomstick in his butt. Guys on the team pulled his pants down and put the hockey stick up his butt again."
That sounded like more than bullying.
The school resource deputy showed up, read the statements and led the boys in a straight line to the front office.
At 11:26 a.m., a detective sent to the school began interviewing the victim. The teen described being grabbed in the locker room and dragged to the floor. He said Myers and Moye held him down, and Price-Murray and Roberts penetrated him with a broomstick and a hockey stick.
The teen said it happened 10 to 12 times, starting early in the season and continuing until the week before the interview. He said no adults were around, but teammates saw what happened.
The interview ended at 11:32 a.m.
In his April deposition, Moye said he didn't understand what was going on until his mother showed up at the school.
"Do you know why you're here?" she asked.
"No, we have no idea why we're here," he said.
When his mother told him about the rape allegations, Moye said he was upset and scared.
He remembered hearing Price-Murray's mother screaming at her son in a nearby room.
At 4:10 p.m., deputies arrested all four teens on juvenile charges.
"You're going to jail," a deputy told Moye.
As he left the office, Moye said he saw the victim and the victim's father. He said the victim was "actually like giggling and smiling, like it was a joke or something."
• • •
Defense attorneys make it their business to pick apart the evidence against their clients.
In the Walker case, lawyers are troubled that law enforcement made arrests before seeking DNA testing or a rape exam.
Nearly a month passed before the victim underwent two medical examinations. Neither showed signs of a sexual assault, defense attorneys say.
Crime lab tests recovered the victim's DNA from a hockey stick, prosecutors have said in court, but found nothing on the stick that linked it to the suspects.
Though the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office did not file adult charges until early June 2009, a spokeswoman vowed within days of the arrests that those charges would be pursued.
"Everything was accelerated rapidly in this case," said attorney Tim Taylor, who represents Myers. "I think because it was high profile, because it was on the news."
Authorities did not interview many of the potential witnesses on the flag football team until after the allegations had been widely reported.
The players' memories varied about what happened and how often. One said the victim laughed; others heard him scream. Whether his pants were up or down also seemed up for debate, records show.
Defense attorneys say that subsequent depositions of witnesses, including Moye, cleared things up.
"There was no sexual assault that ever took place," said Roberts' attorney, Monica Strickland. "There were some boys horse-playing, and that was taken out of context by adults."
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Did authorities overreact?
With the case still pending, they aren't saying much.
"We've not had any concerns expressed to us by the State Attorney's Office as to the manner in which the investigation was conducted," Hillsborough sheriff's Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said.
Prosecutors declined to talk specifics. But attorneys in the sex crimes division meet with victims and take sworn statements in every case, knowing they must satisfy a higher standard of proof in court than the probable cause used to justify an arrest.
That means the Walker Middle victim would have had more than six minutes to explain his allegations.
Ober said his staff is mindful of the impact criminal charges will have on someone's life, particularly a young person. In the locker room case, none of the suspects was allowed to return to Walker Middle again.
"We don't randomly or arbitrarily or on a whim file a case against someone," Ober said. "We have an ethical obligation not to do that."
Though all four teens were charged with the same crimes, prosecutors weigh factors such as culpability, criminal history and school performance and conduct to determine appropriate punishment.
Moye and Myers are on the road to resolving their cases, the first with juvenile sanctions, the latter with pretrial intervention.
Each admitted in his written statement to participating in at least one incident.
Moye and Myers are white. The remaining defendants are black. They, too, have been offered plea bargains, but attorney Strickland said Roberts' deal was not nearly as favorable as what Moye or Myers received.
She does not think race has influenced the decisionmaking.
Price-Murray and Roberts were accused of taking a more active role in the alleged attacks.
In his deposition, Moye recounted two occasions when he saw Price-Murray and Roberts taunting the victim and poking his clothed rear-end with a hockey stick.
"I just thought it was joking," Moye said.
Myers has also agreed to give testimony as part of his agreement with the state but has not yet been deposed.
Attorneys for Roberts and Price-Murray indicated in court last week that they plan to depose the victim, who spent the summer out of the country.
They are hopeful their clients will be vindicated.
"The state wants to make sure that if something really did happen, that it doesn't just get set aside as being nothing," Strickland said. "But there are instances where people are actually charged with crimes that they didn't commit, and this happens to be one."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.