A 115th District Court jury assessed Johnathan J. Darden two concurrent sentences of life imprisonment Wednesday after convicting him of two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14, said Upshur County District Attorney Billy Byrd.
Darden, 28, of Tyler, was charged with assaulting a 13-year-old girl on or about last July 1 and Aug. 1, Byrd said.
During the 2-day trial, she testified he assaulted her six times over a period of about a month and a half—sometimes at her Gilmer home, the prosecutor said.
“I guess his defense was the (girl’s) mom coached the girl into making these allegations” out of anger toward the defendant, Byrd said Wednesday night in a telephone interview. Darden’s court-appointed attorney, Gilmer lawyer Brandon Winn, called only the mother to testify and she denied that, Byrd said.
Winn confirmed to The Mirror Thursday that Byrd accurately described his defense. Winn said Darden had been involved in a “bizarre love triangle. . .The evidence showed he was involved with two adult women and the (alleged) victim.”
Winn said “early indications” were that Darden would appeal the conviction, although the attorney said he hadn’t discussed that with his client.
Summarizing the case, Winn said, “I grieve for all the parties involved because everybody lost.”
Darden was ineligible for probation since he was already a convicted felon on parole for three offenses in Smith County, Byrd said. Those circumstances required he be sentenced to between 15 years and life imprisonment, said the prosecutor.
In a news release issued Thursday, Byrd said Darden was living with the female child, her brothers and their mother in Gilmer last summer. He said evidence showed the sexual assault started last July.
In the telephone interview, and the news release, Byrd gave these details of the case:
Last Aug. 4, the mother and Darden got into an argument at their home. Darden told the child to get in his car, and left with her in the early morning hours of Aug. 5 after assaulting the mother.
Darden and the girl’s whereabouts were unknown at first. According to testimony, the girl’s mother phoned police, and the child was “entered as a runaway at that point.”
Then the child and Darden reappeared at 9:45 a.m. at the girl’s home, where Gilmer police arrested him on charges of “assault family violence” against the mother and enticing a child.
After the arrest, “the mother had been suspicious of some of the defendant’s actions toward” the girl and found what she thought was semen on a pair of the child’s shorts in a bedroom.
The girl was subsequently examined by a special nurse at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, and identified Darden as having sexually assaulted her.
In addition, clothing was collected at the hospital, and testing at the Texas Department of Public Safety laboratory in Garland showed male semen on the inside of the girl’s underwear.
“This was consistent with the child’s testimony” that Darden had checked them into a motel, Byrd wrote. There, she testified, he made her perform oral sex on him and penetrated her, the prosecutor said.
During her medical examination, she was wearing the same underwear she had on at the motel, he said. There was not enough semen for a “DNA profile” of the perpetrator, but the case had enough evidence to link Darden, Byrd added.
Before the trial, Darden denied any type of inappropriate activity with the child and said they had gone to a home in Winona, Byrd said.
Investigation showed they did, but that on Aug. 5, Darden checked into a Gilmer motel with her at 3:30 a.m., the prosecutor said.
Testimony from scientific experts showed semen was found on the underwear she was wearing at the motel, Byrd added.
In the phone interview, he added these details:
Byrd’s investigator, Jon Warren, went through literally 3,000 phone calls Darden had made or attempted from jail. Warren found a female Darden knew, and learned Darden had told her “he didn’t mean for it to happen.”
That female was found, placed under subpoena, and had incriminating letters Darden had written her. She also testified at the trial.
Darden wrote that “it happened on only one night. He had been drinking all day, drank himself asleep. When he woke up, the child was in bed with him. . .When he realized what was going on, he asked her to leave.”
Thus, Darden admitted a sexual relationship with the girl and said “he was ashamed of his sin” in this letter.
The girl “was very nervous, scared about testifying” and waited several minutes after being called as a witness before entering the courtroom. But “she did a good job on the witness stand” when she was called as the state’s first witness Tuesday.
Dr. Wade French, a Tyler psychologist who works with child abuse victims and counsels sex offenders, testified she exhibited “all the classical signs of being a victim” although she didn’t cry.
In the news release, Byrd added, “He testified that this victim exhibited all the clinical signs of abuse and that her demeanor, fear and reluctance to divulge information initially was inherently reliable as to his personal experience and years of study in this field.”
Byrd said the 9-woman, 3-man jury chosen the prior week took an estimated 75 to 90 minutes to reach a verdict, and about an hour determining sentence. Byrd said he asked for the life sentences. He and Winn said the defense asked for a 20-year term.
During the trial’s punishment phase, said Byrd, the state cited Darden’s history of felony convictions for stalking, retaliation and injury to a child, as well as his misdemeanor convictions for unlawful restraint and harassment.
Gilmer police Sgt. Investigator Roxanne Warren led investigation of the case.
The defendant must serve 30 years before becoming eligible for parole, Byrd said. 115th District Judge Lauren Parish presided in the case.