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Rape victim gets day in court 23 years later

Dwayne Edward Sheppard, now 43, is accused of sexual battery of a then 25-year-old woman 23 years ago.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Dwayne Edward Sheppard, now 43, is accused of sexual battery of a then 25-year-old woman 23 years ago.

LARGO — Twenty-three years ago, she was a 25-year-old mother in bed with her young daughter.

She awoke to find a naked man standing beside her. He threatened her with a sharp blade.

On Tuesday, the woman sat in the witness stand in a Pinellas courtroom and relived that night, hoping for justice nearly a quarter-century later.

"I tried to talk him out of it," the woman recalled, wiping away tears.

She then told jurors how the intruder forced her into the living room and raped her while her 5-year-old daughter slept.

The St. Petersburg Times is not naming the woman because of the nature of the crime.

For Dwayne Edward Sheppard, the trial that began on Tuesday is either a horrible mistake or the long-delayed consequence of a decades-old crime.

Sheppard, whose last known address is in New Port Richey, is charged with sexual battery. A conviction could put him in prison for decades.

His attorney told jurors that the evidence linking him to the crime is insufficient.

As the victim fought through tears to tell her story, it was clear that 23 years had not erased the pain of what happened to her.

She explained how the intruder sat her down on the living room carpet. He talked dirty and paused often to sniff something from a silver canister.

After the man raped her, he made her shower, perhaps to wash away evidence. Then he left.

The woman's daughter was not harmed.

The woman called her boyfriend, who dialed authorities.

Pinellas sheriff's deputies and technicians found what could prove to be a crucial piece of evidence: A fingerprint on a window screen the intruder had knocked out to get inside.

But no one knew whose print it was. The case remained unsolved for two decades.

But a few years ago, a Pinellas sheriff's official spent part of her day using a computer program that matches fingerprints. It's a more sophisticated tool than police had in 1985, so authorities use it to look for new clues in old crimes.

And in this case, Assistant State Attorney Della Connolly said, putting the old fingerprint in the program yielded a new result: It matched a print that had been taken from Sheppard during another arrest.

Connolly said there is other evidence linking Sheppard, now 43, to the crime: He had a good friend he sometimes visited close to the victim; and a witness saw someone get out of a car similar to Sheppard's on the night of the crime.

But Assistant Public Defender Nicola Brown said that's not enough.

She said there's no way to tell if the fingerprint was left on the screen on the night of the attack. She also noted the screen was found outside the house. And even though the attack may have taken as long as 90 minutes, none of Sheppard's fingerprints was found inside the home, she said.

The trial resumes today.

Rape victim gets day in court 23 years later 12/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:59pm]
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