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Freed Putnam man sent back to prison for daughter's rape

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Putnam County man must return immediately to prison to serve the rest of his term for the 1996 rape of his 5-year-old daughter, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Justices unanimously reversed a 2011 Putnam County judge's order allowing Joseph Lavigne Jr. of Hurricane, who had served 15 years of his sentence, to walk free on bond pending a new trial.

Justices ordered Lavigne, 54, to serve the rest of his 22- to 60-year prison sentence.

The high court reversed a May 2011 decision by now-retired Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding.

Citing trial errors and a lack of sufficient evidence, Spaulding vacated Lavigne's sentence and granted a new trial. He also allowed Lavigne to be released on $150,000 bond while he awaited trial.

The court found Spaulding "abused (his) discretion" by granting Lavigne a new trial without properly demonstrating constitutional errors in the original trial.

In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court disagreed with each of the points Spaulding used as grounds for his decision. Justices disagreed with his interpretations of alleged errors in the original case and said jurors had enough evidence to consider.

The decision, which was not signed, said Spaulding's decision did not give proper weight to the prosecution's credibility in the case.

Rather, it said Spaulding "sought instead to dismantle the theory upon which the State successfully prosecuted Mr. Lavigne."

"This Court is struck by the wholesale fashion in which the circuit court usurped the jury's function in this case," the decision said.

The court said none of the time that has passed since Lavigne was released on bond would be credited toward his sentence.

The decision is the latest turn in a dramatic case that has spanned nearly 17 years. 

Lavigne was arrested in February 1996 for the rape of his 5-year-old daughter. Police said she was taken to a playground next to a church near their home for the assault.  

The trial was held in Clarksburg because of heavy publicity in the Kanawha Valley, but it was presided over by longtime Putnam Circuit Judge Clarence Watt, who died in 2005. The Harrison County jury deliberated for less than two hours before delivering its guilty verdict.

Although witnesses testified the little girl had implicated her father on the day of the rape, she didn't positively identify him as her attacker during the trial. 

Lavigne's family, including the daughter who was raped and her brothers, applauded Spaulding's decision last year. Victim Katie Haught was quoted at the time as saying she was "100 percent confident my father is innocent."

She said she remembered only "pieces" of that morning when someone took her from her family's recreation room and sexually assaulted her.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-5148.


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