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GIRL, 9, POINTS OUT ACCUSED

She testifies that he is the man who molested her in a store's men's room.

She was dressed in a white jacket with pink hearts. Her dark hair fell over her right eye. The microphone barely picked up her soft, hushed tones, her one-word answers.

The adults in Courtroom 2A strained to hear those answers Wednesday, as the 9-year-old girl slowly revealed what authorities say happened to her in a Gulf View Square bathroom during a May 5, 2006, trip to the mall.

"While you were in there," Assistant State Attorney Eva Vergos asked the girl, "did anything happen that made you feel weird or sad?"

"Yes," the girl said.

"How did you feel?" the prosecutor asked.

"Sad," the girl said.

The girl was testifying in the case against Joseph John DeBenedetto, on trial this week on two counts of capital sexual battery and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition.

Given her age and the nature of the allegations, she was a difficult witness to question.

Her first responses to many of Vergos' questions were "no" or "I don't know" or just silence.

"Did anyone take down your undies or underwear?" the prosecutor asked.

"No," the girl said.

Slowly, gently, the prosecutor reeled in the elements of the girl's story.

"How did he touch you, with his hand?" Vergos asked.

"Yes," the girl said.

"Was it on your clothes or under your clothes?" the prosecutor asked.

"Under," the girl said.

"Who took your clothes off?" the prosecutor asked.

The girl said DeBenedetto did , then she pointed to him across the courtroom.

If found guilty of the charges, the 43-year-old Hudson man faces up to life in prison.

The girl was 7 at the time authorities say DeBenedetto molested and exposed himself to her.

Her identity is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times because of the nature of the allegations.

Authorities say the incident took place in the second-floor men's room at Dillard's. The girl was visiting the mall with the defendant.

Defense attorney Bryant Camareno had the difficult task of cross-examining the girl too. He asked his questions as gently as the prosecution did.

"When you saw Ms. Vergos yesterday," Camareno asked, "did she remind you of where you were touched?"

"Yes," the girl said.

"When Ms. Vergos asked you if your clothes were off," Camareno said, "why did you say no?"

"I don't know," the girl said.

In his opening statement Camareno said the girl might have said something to her mother that inadvertently triggered a "panic," a "bias," against his client, that led to the charges.

He said mall security cameras showed the defendant and girl spent just five minutes in the bathroom. And on the way out, the attorney said, nothing seemed amiss on tape.

The state told jurors that the defendant's confessions were videotaped, and his incriminating calls to the family after the incident were tape-recorded.

Camareno's explanation: "I submit to you that a person with his low mental capacity and I.Q., all he's doing is repeating what the cops say."

Vergos, the prosecutor, called DeBenedetto a thief. She said there was no mistaking what happened to that little girl on a Saturday afternoon at the mall.

"She left that bathroom not as a child," Vergos told the jury. "He took that away."

Reach Jamal Thalji at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

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