A Scotts Bluff County District Court jury acquitted a Scottsbluff man accused of sexual assault Thursday.
The jury, made up of seven women and five men, received the case against Jimmy Darnell, 70, at 10:40 a.m. They returned the verdict three hours later.
“Jim Darnell is innocent,” his attorney, Maren Chaloupka, told the Star-Herald after the verdict was returned. “Justice is done.”
Authorities charged Darnell in May 2019 with charges of first-degree sexual assault on a child less than 12 years of age, a Class IB felony; and sexual assault of a child, third degree, Class IIIA felony.
Allegations stem from an incident reported to have occurred in 2012 in which Darnell had been alleged to have sexually assaulted a girl when she was 5 years old. The girl told police she had been staying overnight at Darnell’s home when she alleged that he touched her and sexually assaulted her.
Jurors heard three days of testimony, which began Monday and concluded Wednesday. During much of the case, the courtroom has been filled, mostly with members of Darnell’s family. The crowd filled all of the seats, and additional chairs were brought in for spectators, during closing arguments.
Scotts Bluff County Attorney Dave Eubanks outlined the state’s case that the girl had initially disclosed the alleged sexual assault a day after staying at Darnell’s home, however, her parents did not report the disclosure to law enforcement and she later re-disclosed when she was 12 years old after watching a video at school on puberty.
In closing arguments, he admitted to the jury that it was a difficult case, involving the sexual assault of a girl, now 13 recalling an assault alleged to have occurred when she was 5 years old. The girl had disclosed, as best as she could, her memories of the assault. He also acknowledged that the investigation, with changes in investigators and investigators unqualified to handle child abuse investigations, had problems, “plain and simple.”
“These cases normally boil down to this,” he said. “What (the girl) told you on the witness stand. Either you believe her or you don’t. If you believe that what she told you happened to her is the truth, you can convict.”
He said the girl had disclosed, at the time of the assault, to her parents. According to her mother’s testimony, the girl described Darnell as “touching her down there,” while pointing to her pelvic area. The girl’s father had also testified that a statement by the girl — he testified for the defense and said the girl only said Darnell had touched her —had been serious.
The couple found the statement so serious, he said, that they talked about how to protect the girl by discontinuing sleepovers at Darnell’s home and limiting the time they spent alone. They hoped the girl would forget, and everything would be fine.
“Not the best parenting ever,” Eubanks said, “but they made a bad decision and did not get a bad result.”
In April 2018, the girl viewed a presentation at school and, according to her testimony and her mother’s, she talked to her mother afterward, asking questions about the incident that had occurred several years prior. Though the girl’s father says he was not aware of a disclosure from the girl,
Eubanks said, text messages between the man and the girl’s mother when she tells him she is considering moving out are an indication that he did know, Eubanks said. “You can make a reasonable inference,” he said, “that was the source of the problem in their marriage.”
The allegations were reported in May 2018 after the girl’s mother saw a counselor in Colorado, and spoke about the allegations. Eubanks disputed the defense’s arguments that the assault allegations had been fabricated so the girl’s mother “could squeeze out a couple of extra bucks” in a divorce. He noted that it took a lot of strength for the girl to go through the process of the sexual assault investigation and “to talk about the worst, most private moment of her life” in front of a courtroom filled with family and others.
“This is a serious case ... And it deserves serious attention,” Eubanks said in urging the jury to return a guilty verdict.
Chaloupka argued throughout trial that the allegations are a result of a story concocted by the girl’s mother as she sought to separate and divorce her husband. She reiterated that stance in closing arguments.
Jim Darnell “is an innocent man,” she said. “He is innocent because the facts show he is innocent and he did not attack (the girl) then or ever.”
In closing arguments, Chaloupka compared Darnell’s case to the Salem witch trials, though she said today, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, she said, human nature is to assume a person is guilty when they have been charged, or even pulled over by a police officer.
However, she said, like the Salem witch trials, the case is “full of accusers bearing false witness” against Darnell.
Changes in the girl’s story are evidence that she had been manipulated by her mother into lying, she said. She questioned a counselor’s testimony that the statements of sexual assault victims can change over time as they remember more details of an assault and put memories into context.
Chaloupka heavily criticized the main investigator in the case, a Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s deputy, who she argued didn’t disclose people that he had questioned during his investigation and had been “more concerned with cutting a notch in his belt” than with doing a thorough investigation. She called it a rigged investigation in which the investigator had decided Darnell was guilty of the allegations. She argued he only looked for witnesses who corroborated his case and ignored information about the finances of the mother of the girl. Another investigator also was involved in the investigating that Chaloupka called “dangerously bad” and full of contradictions.
“She was able to manipulate a seasoned sheriff’s investigator, is it really hard to believe she was able to manipulate her daughter?” Chaloupka said.
After the verdict was read, members of Darnell’s family gathered in the courtroom, sharing hugs and thanking people for their support.