Winfred Ottley faced a dilemma: Whether to risk being found guilty of rape and aggravated child molestation in a second trial, or to accept a lighter sentence that would get him out of prison sooner.
As both he and his defense attorney wept Friday in Muscogee Superior Court, he chose the latter, though he steadfastly maintained his innocence.
With the Georgia Court of Appeals last year overturning his conviction, Ottley could have sought a new trial. Instead he pleaded guilty to child molestation and statutory rape, and Judge Maureen Gottfried sentenced him to serve 15 years in prison.
Vicki Novak, the public defender who represented Ottley in his appeals, said that with credit for the time he already has served, Ottley could be eligible for parole in 4½ years. Had he sought a new trial and been convicted again, he could have spent 30-40 more years in prison – essentially, at age 48, the rest of his life.
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On May 13, 2010, Ottley was sentenced to four concurrent life sentences after a jury found him guilty on three counts of cruelty to children, two counts each of aggravated child molestation, rape and aggravated assault, and one count each of sexual battery, child molestation and another sex-related charge.
He began serving his sentence Aug. 5, 2010, having most recently been housed at Georgia’s Valdosta State Prison.
He was convicted of repeatedly raping a girl from when she was age 9 in 2006 until she was 12 in 2009. The girl said the sexual abuse began in May 2006 when Ottley put a knife to her throat and ordered her to remove her pants, threatening to kill her if she did not comply. Then he raped her.
She told police this happened 15 or 20 times in the years to come, though Ottley did not again use a knife. The last assault was in January 2009, she said.
Yet she did not report this until May 2009, and Ottley’s defense attorneys argued the allegations were a set-up orchestrated by Ottley’s estranged wife, with whom he then was embroiled in a divorce involving significant funds and property.
The defense alleged Ottley’s wife was having a sexual affair with her church pastor, and arranging Ottley’s arrest enabled her to collect all his money and property in the ensuing divorce, leaving him with nothing as his ex-wife and the preacher moved in together.
But it was not on that argument the Georgia Court of Appeals based its decision to overturn Ottley’s conviction: It was the medical evidence presented during his trial, and his trial attorney’s failing to challenge it.
Much of the evidence cited in the appeals court decision is too graphic to be reported in a newspaper. It focused on the girl’s anatomy, and whether she could have been raped if physically she appeared still to be a virgin.
Ottley’s attorney at trial was Michael Garner, who during Ottley’s appeal testified he believed that medical evidence would favor his client, so he was unprepared for testimony from a nurse specializing in sexual assault exams, who told the court the girl’s genitalia showed indications of “blunt penetrating trauma” that could have been caused by intercourse.
The nurse also said the 12-year-old’s vagina looked like that of a 30-year-old woman who’d twice given birth – even though her hymen was intact.
Garner did not cross-examine the nurse, leaving jurors to conclude her testimony was “unassailable,” the appeals court wrote.
It was not, argued Novak, who said the part about a 30-year-old woman wasn’t even evidence: “One of the things that she said, and pardon what I’m about to say, is that her female anatomy looked like a 30-year-old woman who had children. Really? Well, excuse me: How do you know by looking at that?”
Of Ottley’s trial attorney, she added: “How do you let that go? How do you not say anything, and say, ‘Well, that’s the strategy.’ Well, you’re leaving the jury with the impression that there was medical evidence.”
The appeals court noted two physicians, including one who testified during Ottley’s trial, later said the appearance of female genitalia varies individually and is congenital, though Ottley’s defense team never got that into evidence during the trial.
So in reference to Ottley’s trial attorney, the appeals court concluded in its Nov. 20, 2013, decision:
“Because he failed to present evidence to counter what he should have known would be important medical evidence in the case, a reasonable probability exists that, absent counsel’s professional error, the result of the trial would have been different. Accordingly, we conclude that Ottley is entitled to a new trial.”
The appeals court noted it did not conclude Ottley was innocent, however: “Although we find the evidence sufficient to support his convictions, we reverse for a new trial because we find that Ottley has carried his burden of demonstrating that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Novak still believes the case against Ottley is of questionable merit, in light of its timing and its effect on his divorce.
“I have serious, serious questions about how the whole thing came about,” she said.