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New analysis of old rape kit helps convict Tampa man in 1988 attack

Phillip Coward, now 59, faces a sentence of up to life in prison for raping a young mother at knifepoint in her home.
Phillip Coward, 59, of Tampa, was convicted of two counts of sexual battery with a weapon in connection with an attack that occurred 30 years ago.
Phillip Coward, 59, of Tampa, was convicted of two counts of sexual battery with a weapon in connection with an attack that occurred 30 years ago. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
Published Dec. 23, 2019
Updated Dec. 23, 2019

TAMPA — Recent DNA analysis on a long-shelved sexual battery kit helped convict a 59-year-old Tampa man of a rape that occurred three decades ago.

A jury last week convicted Phillip Coward of 3012 Arrow St. in Tampa of two counts of sexual battery with a weapon, according to a news release Monday from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

Coward had been arrested June 11, 2018, in connection with the Nov. 15, 1988, attack. He has served time in state prison as a habitual felon and was identified on a jail booking sheet as a self-employed handyman.

The Sheriff’s Office gave this account of the crime:

The victim fell asleep on the couch at her home and was awoken in the middle of the night by a man holding a knife to her throat. The man threatened to stab her son if she screamed or fought back. She was sexually battered twice and the suspect fled undetected.

Deputies arrived at the scene and found a knife outside the front door. The knife had been taken from the victim’s kitchen knife block and used by the suspect to threaten her.

The victim did not know her attacker. A sexual battery examination was done but eventually, the case went cold.

In 2017, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement worked through a backlog of sexual battery examination kits, evidence in the Tampa rape was examined and a DNA profile of the suspect was identified, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation was re-activated and Coward was arrested at a home in the 800 block of Palm Avenue.

At one point in 2015, the state estimated it had 6,661 untested sexual battery kits within its jurisdiction, a backlog blamed in part on funding cuts and other factors, such as a victim who refuses to help in a case, the conviction of a defendant or a decision not to prosecute. The backlog figure doesn’t include untested kits from local Florida law enforcement agencies.

State lawmakers provided funding to start working through the backlog in 2016 after then-state Attorney General Pam Bondi and victims advocate groups argued for testing on all kits, saying they can help solve other crimes and even identify serial rapists.

Coward has been sentenced to state prison on four occasions since the mid 1980s, the longest stint for 7½ years as a habitual felon in 1996. He has been convicted of charges including false imprisonment, robbery with a firearm, battery and dealing in stolen property.

Coward’s sentencing on the sexual battery charges is scheduled for Feb. 13. Each of the two counts he faces carries a sentence of up to life in prison.