SANDPOINT — In the end, it came down to credibility for a group of Bonner County jurors.
A jury convicted a former Sandpoint man Wednesday of one count of lewd conduct and two counts of sexual abuse of a minor. The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for less than two hours before reaching its unanimous verdicts.
The 15-year-old victim and her mother embraced in relief at the jury’s verdict. Defendant Steven Ronald Ennis Jr., declined to be present when the jury’s verdicts were rendered in open court.
“He has no desire to join us,” Deputy Public Defender Luke Hagelberg said, urging 1st District Judge Barbara Buchanan to press on with the proceedings involving the jury’s verdict.
Ennis, 55, reportedly doffed the suit and tie he wore in court in a secure courthouse hallway and took up his jail garb as closing arguments in the case were being made.
It was unclear if Ennis would be present during today’s penalty proceedings, which will determine if a prior conviction for underage sex with a minor in California should be factored into the sentencing, which could lead to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.
The verdicts capped a two-day trial in 1st District Court in which Ennis took the stand to offer an alibi defense.
Ennis was accused of touching the girl’s genitalia in March 2015, in addition to fondling her breasts from 2014 to 2015 and exposing her to internet pornography during that same time frame.
Ennis, however, maintained from the witness stand that he was in California during the times he was accused of molesting the girl, who was between the ages of 11-12 when the alleged abuse began.
Ennis categorically denied the abuse allegations under direct examination from his counsel. He also professed to lack the technical savvy of using his mobile phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot in order to stream pornographic video clips from the internet.
“I don’t know how to do that,” said Ennis. “I just don’t understand how it works.”
But Ennis’s credibility was drawn into question as it emerged had was sophisticated enough to use various aliases in California and Idaho to obtain a fraudulent identification card and enter into a lease agreement to let a condo in California. Ellis told jurors he used the assumed identities because of a shoddy credit scores, although the state argued that the fake identities were used to sidestep his court-ordered obligations in criminal cases against him in California.
Outside of the results of a forensic examination of the alleged victim, there was no physical evidence in the case, which meant jurors would have to decide the case on the credibilities of the accuser and the accused.
Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall politely dared jurors to find a reason why a teenage girl would fabricate a story about being abused and withstand the rigors of a trial in which she would have to recount the abuse in humiliating detail.
“Try to find a reason for her to lie,” Marshall said during his closing remarks.
Hagelberg, meanwhile, sowed seeds of reasonable doubt by noting pointing out inconsistencies in the teen’s account, such as the types of tattoos Ennis has and the ones she recalled for jurors and what grade she was in when the abuse occurred. The defense also noted that there was no DNA evidence and the devices Ennis allegedly used to watch pornography were never collected as evidence.
“At what point does reasonable doubt creep in?” Hagelberg asked jurors.
During the state’s rebuttal, Marshall disputed the defense’s arguments as speculative.
“She did the best job she could,” Marshall said of the teen’s testimony.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.