Former Doniphan, Mo., school bus driver found guilty of child molestation

Monday, September 22, 2008

DONIPHAN, Mo. — Seated in the front row of a Ripley County courtroom, the parents of a former Doniphan pre-kindergarten student held hands as the jury in the trial of a man accused of molesting their young daughter returned from nearly 10 hours of deliberation held over two days.

The five woman, seven man jury twice asked Presiding Circuit Judge Mark Richardson to let them declare a hung jury before finding Robert (Bob) Griffith Jr., 55, of Doniphan guilty Saturday afternoon of one count of child molestation. They found him not guilty of one count of child molestation and two counts of statutory sodomy.

Audience members could be heard crying in both the defendant's side of the courtroom, filled with Griffith's supporters, and the prosecution's side, where parents, family and friends of the two girls he was accused of molesting were seated.

The jury has recommended a sentence of five years in prison and could have advised as much as 15 years. A formal sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 20, when Griffith will likely be taken into custody, attorneys said. He is currently free on a $100,000 bond, as he has been since the day of his arrest.

A former Doniphan bus driver, Griffith was accused in late 2006 and early 2007 of molesting two boys and two girls during his afternoon prekindergarten bus route. A judge ruled in 2007 the state had enough evidence to proceed with charges involving the alleged molestation of three of those children.

Prosecutors chose to take to trial two charges each of statutory sodomy and child molestation involving a then 4-year-old girl and a then 5-year-old girl. The girls are now 6 and 7 years old.

That trial began Thursday and included more than 18 hours of often emotional testimony from the girls' and their parents, as well as law enforcement.

"We've waited two years for our opportunity to explain to a jury what happened to our family," said the father of the now 6-year-old girl, whom Griffith was found guilty of molesting, following the verdict and sentencing. "¿ To see him leave the courtroom in handcuffs [Oct. 20] and know he is going to prison will feel like justice is being served.

"There was another child affected besides ours. Although on her charges, [Griffith] was found not guilty, the time he will serve will be for [my daughter and the other child]."

It is time for the family to start healing, said the now 6-year-old girl's mother.

"We're always going to let [our daughter] know she was a hero in this, not a victim, because she came and told us what [Griffith] did to her. Because of her, other children will be safe now," the woman said.

Griffith was defended by attorneys Steve Walsh and Daniel Moore. Following the verdict, Walsh called the decision a compromise verdict.

"The jury was deadlocked for over four hours and eventually felt compelled, for reasons I don't wish to discuss publicly, to reach a verdict," Walsh said. "We intend to vigorously pursue our posttrial motions and feel at this point confident."

GRIFFITH TESTIFIES

During Friday's proceedings, Griffith testified in his own defense, saying he never touched any of the children on his bus route and that these accusations have ruined his life.

Walsh questioned Griffith about any problems that could have been associated with the girl he was eventually convicted of molesting.

"As I brought little Miss [the now 6-year-old girl] home ¿ she was crying," Griffith said.

The girl's father said she said boys on the bus kissed her, Griffith said. The matter was turned over to the girl's teacher, he continued.

"She was a shy girl. I tried to protect her. She looked like she was being raised the right way," he said. "A lot of kids on there [the bus] have a lot of energy and I've got to put them in their place."

GIRLS INTERVIEWED

Several hours of video tapes, including forensic interviews done with both girls and a deposition of one girl, were shown to the jury.

During portions of the now 6-year-old girl's two forensic interviews her father was brought into the room.

Under questioning from Moore, forensic interviewer Diane Silman, of the Ozark Foothills Child Advocacy Center where the interviews were conducted, admitted this was not normal procedure.

"We make exceptions if they are in the best interest of the child," she said.

Silman was the last witness for the defense.

The now 6-year-old girl was visibly upset for most of her forensic interviews, both conducted in December 2006, and a later deposition held in January 2008.

During the first forensic interview, Silman questioned the girl several times about whether she had been touched inappropriately.

"Yes, Bob and [other children] ¿ I know daddy wasn't there, but I don't know if it's real. I want my daddy to talk about it now," she said.

Silman asked if something happened on the bus and the girl said "yes," before becoming very upset and asking for her father.

When the girl continued to become upset, her father came in and told the girl he couldn't remember what she had told him.

"I don't want to talk about it anymore ¿ I don't want her to hear me," the girl said, during a later interview adding, "I don't want to talk about it. It's too ugly."

She later described oral sex and said photos were taken of her with her clothes on and off.

Silman conducted six forensic interviews with the now 7-year-old girl. When questioned by the defense, Silman agreed she had testified in a separate case that normally only one interview is done.

In the initial interview, the now 7-year-old girl says no one has ever touched her in what she called a "bad spot." She described oral sex in later interviews, as well as fantastic and impossible events involving Griffith.

"In the disclosure process, is there denial and tentative disclosure," Special Prosecuting Attorney Megan Schueler of the Missouri Attorney General's Office asked Silman in cross examination. Schueler prosecuted the case with Ripley County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Miller.

Silman confirmed that was true.

"[The kids] are trying to get a reaction to the information they do give and see if they can tell all of it," Silman said.

Schueler asked if children recant or use fantasy to protect themselves in a traumatic situation. Again Silman said that was true.

SENTENCING

Before jurors decided Griffith's sentence they heard from the parents of the now 6-year-old girl about how their family has been affected by this.

They described their daughter as an independent child before joining Griffith's bus route in September 2006. Today, she is afraid to go to the bathroom by herself, even in her own home, her father said. The family moved out of Ripley County in 2007. The girl's mother gave up the business she had just started, though they continued to make payments on that building and their Doniphan home for many months after

the move.

The mother has been unable to return to work since the move, they said. She has to be available to take and pick up the girl from school because the child refuses to ride a school bus.

"Every day has to be routine, or we have big problems," the father said. "We've had to pick her up and bring her home when there is a substitute teacher. ¿ She will cry and panic.

"I don't think I have the vocabulary to describe what we've been through."

"Her innocence was taken away and she'll never get that back," her mother told jurors.

Walsh called several witnesses, including neighbors and a pastor, to speak on Griffith's character before jurors were released to determine his sentence.

Griffith's stepson, Edward Merritt, talked about the man he has known for 18 years.

"He'd give you the shirt off his back," Merritt said. "If it wasn't for him, during my divorce, I would have lost my house and my kids probably."

Griffith's wife, Carol, described him as a good man.

"He's a broken man," she said. "He loves children. He would not touch a child."

Following the sentencing, Miller said he appreciated the help offered by the attorney general's office and that they provided a seasoned child abuse prosecutor.

"I'm disappointed we lost three of the four counts, but I'm happy we convinced the jury the defendant was guilty of child molestation," Miller said.

The father of the now 6-year-old girl said his daughter is doing better everyday.

"We want to thank everyone for their prayers, because their prayers and the Godly strength given by them is what has gotten us through this," he said.

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