Attorneys argue case of freed Putnam man accused of rape
Attorneys presented oral arguments Tuesday before the West Virginia Supreme Court in the case of Joseph Lavigne, a Putnam man who spent 15 years behind bars for the rape of his daughter.
Lavigne, 54, was set free on a $150,000 bond in May 2011 pending the high court decision. Last year Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding overturned Lavigne's 1996 jury conviction and ordered a new trial.
Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia filed an appeal of Spaulding's action, asking the Supreme Court to let the conviction stand.
Hearing cases at West Virginia Wesleyan College, the justices gave Sorsaia and Lavigne's attorney Grey Ayers each 10 minutes to speak. They will issue a decision at a later date.
As he did in his written briefs submitted to the court, Sorsaia rejected the defense contention that there were errors made in the trial.
"The state made a decision to appeal because after reading that opinion, it was obvious the circuit court of Putnam County imposed personal opinion in the case when it found there was insufficient evidence.
"A court should not set aside a jury verdict in favor of its own conclusion," Sorsaia said of Spaulding's 74-page opinion to overturn the conviction.
"Why do you think Judge Spaulding let him go?" asked Justice Menis Ketchum.
"After practicing law for 23 years, I cannot understand this," Sorsaia responded.
Lavigne was found guilty of brutally sexually assaulting his 5-year-old daughter in a church parking lot across from his home in the early morning hours. She told her parents, EMTs and a physician that it was her father who did it.
During the trial, held in Clarksburg because of heavy publicity, the girl didn't identify her father as her attacker but glanced at him in the courtroom.
Now an adult and a mother herself, victim Katie Haught has said she doesn't believe Lavigne was her attacker. She has renewed a relationship with him.
Sorsaia said the girl was pressured by her mother to recant her previous statements that her father raped her. The jury, he said, believed her initial story.
"This was a child who was molested by her father and pressured by her mother not to say anything. Behavior and actions can speak a lot louder than words when you are talking about a 6-year-old who has been sexually assaulted."
Ayers told the justices Tuesday he believed there were constitutional errors involved in the trial.
"The court's jury instruction said, 'If you believe the victim's testimony, you should find him guilty,'<!p><#148> Ayers said. "Judge Spaulding found that instruction was not clear."
Ayers said the trial judge limited Lavigne's character witnesses to four, but many more were ready to testify on his behalf.
"His character and credibility was the most important evidence in this case," Ayers said. "He had nothing else to defend himself with."
The 1996 jury deliberated two hours before reaching a verdict. Lavigne was sentenced to 17 to 45 years in the penitentiary.
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832