TAMPA — One night more than two decades ago, a woman returning home to her sister’s Seminole Heights apartment was confronted by a masked gunman. He pulled her inside and took her to a bathroom. He raped her.
The victim didn’t know her attacker. Police struggled to identify a suspect.
On Tuesday, a jury decided it was Antonio Jermaine Rivers.
A panel of four men and two women deliberated a little more than two hours before finding Rivers, 41, guilty of sexual battery with a weapon and armed trespassing.
The verdict capped a three-day trial in which prosecutors acknowledged their evidence was imperfect, but urged the jury to focus on what they said was irrefutable science: a palm print at the crime scene, and DNA from a rape exam, both matched to Rivers.
“We know now what detectives did not know 20 years ago,” Assistant State Attorney Cristina Castillo said in closing arguments. “And the science is what shows us that.”
Defense attorneys vigorously attacked the physical evidence. They pointed out that some evidence over the years had gone missing and questioned whether DNA samples had been properly preserved or potentially contaminated. They also criticized police for failing to record a 2020 interview with Rivers, and questioned why forensic investigators hadn’t tested some items.
Then there were the words of the victim. While the defense did not dispute her story, they noted that when she reported the crime, she gave police a fake name. In court, she said it was because she feared arrest for a misdemeanor warrant.
“The state’s given you a 21-year-old case of lost evidence, misrouted evidence, destroyed and degraded evidence ... with a victim that has lied from day one,” Assistant Public Defender David Hall told the jury. “Each component of this evidence against Mr. Rivers contains reasonable doubt.”
The victim took to the witness stand Monday morning. Sitting straight-backed in a dark suit jacket, wearing hoop earrings, she calmly recounted her memory of a night long ago, and an encounter she’d tried to forget.
It was Dec. 17, 2000. She was 20. She stayed in her older sister’s second-floor apartment on Mohawk Avenue. She’d been out that day with her mother, who dropped her off that evening.
Without a key, she knocked at the door. A man opened it. His head was wrapped in a white T-shirt. His hand held a gun.
She thought it was a male relative playing a joke.
“Stop playing,” she said. She slapping the gun away. Peering inside, she saw a couch flipped over, belongings scattered on the floor. She then knew she’d interrupted a burglary.
The man made her lay on the living room floor.
“I was just praying,” she said. “Please don’t kill me.”
She heard what sounded like another person’s voice, but didn’t see anyone. The gunman made her get up.
He took her to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet. He searched her. He told her to take her pants off.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa
Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
On the witness stand, the victim dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Her voice began to quaver as she described what he made her do.
“It felt like a long time,” she said.
When it was over, he told her not to move, then disappeared. She waited until she was sure he was gone, then called police.
She was taken to a crisis center, where a nurse conducted a rape exam. Biological samples revealed the presence of male DNA. But investigators found no match to a national criminal database. The case went cold.
Two decades later, amid an effort to reinvigorate unsolved cases, Tampa police reexamined the evidence. A fingerprint analyst identified a palm print that had been lifted from the edge of the apartment’s bathtub. Compared to fingerprints stored in a jail booking database, the print was determined to belong to Rivers.
Police obtained a search warrant to collect his DNA. Tests matched it to DNA collected during the rape exam.
A sentencing date is set for July 7. Rivers could get up to life in prison.