BY MIKE FUHRMAN
An Iredell County Superior Court jury deliberated for less than 10 minutes on Wednesday afternoon before finding a former Mooresville High School student not guilty of raping a classmate in 2018.
Jericho Montrell Neal, 22, shed tears of joy after the clerk read the jury’s verdict. He hugged defense attorney Ken Darty before leaving the courtroom with his father.
“It was hard. It was really hard,” Neal said of his experience. “I continued to have faith — faith in God and faith in my attorney.”
The jury of seven men and five women rendered its decision about 3:20 p.m., concluding a trial that began eight days ago. About 10 minutes after informing Judge R. Stuart Albright that they had selected a foreman, a member of the panel knocked on the door of the jury room and notfied the bailiff that they had reached a unanimous verdict.
Neal was arrested by Mooresville police in December of 2018 — about nine months after a 14-year-old classmate filed a report stating that Neal had sexually assaulted her in a stairwell in the Magnolia Building about 2 p.m. on March 6, 2018.
Neal, who was 16 years old at the time of his arrest, spent almost two years in jail until Darty successfully argued for a bond reduction after being appointed to the case.
During his testimony Wednesday morning, Neal denied the rape allegations. He testified that he and the teen had been talking on Skype for several weeks. After meeting before school on the morning of March 6, 2018, Neal told the jury, they had consensual sex in an upstairs hallway.
The following evening the teen told her mom she had been assaulted, beginning the police investigation. Photographs entered as evidence in the case showed her knees were red and bruised the following day. A forensic scientist testified Wednesday morning that DNA evidence obtained during the accuser’s sexual assault examination at Levine Children’s Hospital matched Neal’s DNA profile.
During an interview with a Mooresville police investigator in 2018, Neal stated that he had never had any sexual contact with his accuser.
However, on the witness stand Wednesday, he told the jury that he had lied about that because he was afraid he would get kicked out of school for having sex on campus.
During closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, Assistant District Attorney Regina Mahoney asked the jury to reject Neal’s story of a consensual sexual encounter in a school hallway, saying that it “defies all logic” that the accuser would agree to meet someone she had never even kissed before to have sex in a public area.
“It is not credible. Why should you not believe that?” she asked the jury. “Because this individual lied to law enforcement. If he’s going to lie to law enforcement, he’s going to lie to you.”
Darty, in his closing argument, took aim at the accuser’s credibility, pointing to inconsistencies and omissions in her statements to police, a forensic interviewer with the Dove House Children’s Advocacy Center and her trial testimony.
The defense attorney also pointed to the fact that police did not collect additional security videos from the school, and did not identify or interview a witness who walked down the steps at the time the accuser said the assault was taking place in the stairwell. The accuser also admitted deleting electronic messages between herself and Neal, destroying that could have helped exonerate Neal, Darty said.
The prosecution, he told the jury, had not met its burden of proving Neal guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Let him go back to his family,” Darty said. “Find him not guilty.”
Neal, who is now married to a teacher and working as a restaurant manager in a nearby county, testified that he plans to enroll in a community college in the fall and begin working toward becoming a chef.
Darty called the verdict “a resounding rejection of the state’s case” and “an indictment of the shoddy police work by the MPD.”
“Jericho missed out on the opportunity to graduate with his classmates and to participate in sports,” the defense attorney said. “He had to forego a career in the military due to these baseless allegations of rape.
“Watching the tears in his eyes, and him being overcome with emotions (after the verdict was announced) was one of the most enjoyable sights I have seen in quite some time,” Darty added.
♦ Jury selection begins in trial of former Mooresville High School student accused of on-campus rape
♦ Testimony in rape trial of former Mooresville High School student begins in Iredell County Superior Court
♦ Accuser testifies in rape trial of former Mooresville High School student
♦ Testimony in rape trial scheduled to resume Tuesday morning
♦ Defendant expected to take the stand in rape trial in Iredell County Superior Court on Wednesday