Former Doniphan school bus driver gets 5 years for child molestation

Sunday, October 26, 2008

DONIPHAN, Mo. -- Defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully Thursday that former Doniphan school bus driver Robert Griffith Jr.'s conviction for child molestation be overturned based on juror misconduct and lack of evidence.

The 55-year-old Doniphan man was convicted in September of molesting a 4-year-old prekindergarten student during an afternoon bus route in late 2006. He was found not guilty on three additional charges of molestation and sodomy involving the 4-year-old girl and a then-5-year-old girl.

Griffith, free on bond, was taken into custody yesterday moments after Presiding Circuit Judge Mark Richardson sentenced the man to five years in prison for one count of first-degree child molestation.

Sobbing as he was taken away, Griffith's wife, Carol Griffith, said, "You've just convicted an innocent man." Other comments from Griffith's supporters were called out as the family of the victim, now 6, left the Ripley County Courtroom.

The girl's parents, speaking after the courthouse had cleared, thanked everyone for their prayers and support during this time.

"The five years that he is in prison will never take away what he did to [my daughter]," the girl's mother said.

Richardson heard and denied defense motions for a new trial and for acquittal prior to sentencing.

New trial motion

Poplar Bluff, Mo.-based defense attorneys Steve Walsh and Danny Moore allege juror Sherry Tucker believed Griffith was guilty before evidence was presented and this should have been disclosed during juror selection questioning. They said Tucker's prejudice and other misconduct unfairly influenced the verdict, according to the motion for new trial filed with the court Oct. 8.

Juror Peggy Caniff testified that as they were leaving the courthouse Sept. 17 following juror selection, Tucker said, "We did it. We got on. We're going to fry his [expletive]."

When questioned by Walsh, Tucker denied making that statement or making up her mind before the trial began.

The defense could not prove Tucker made that statement and had not specified any selection question to which she may have failed to disclose information, according to motions filed in response by Special Prosecuting Attorney Megan Schueler of the Missouri Attorney General's Office, handling the case with Ripley County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Miller.

The response also said no affidavits of personal knowledge to support this allegation were filed during the time set aside to bring those allegations forward.

Defense attorneys also accused Tucker and one other juror, not called to testify, of using their cell phones during jury deliberations.

"The fact that there was an opportunity to improperly influence any juror … will require a new trial, even though it may be shown that improper influences were not exercised," reads the Oct. 8 motion.

Each of the at least six jurors questioned by Walsh and Schueler testified they were not influenced by anyone or anything outside of evidence presented during the trial, though Tucker did admit to texting during deliberations. Tucker said she was not discussing the trial.

Acquittal motion

In a motion for acquittal filed Oct. 8, defense attorneys say the guilty verdict should be overturned for lack of evidence. In the 4-year-old girl's testimony, consisting of a hearing, deposition and two forensic interviews, the girl made "one fleeting reference" to her breasts being touched, the basis of the child molestation charge, they said.

The motion goes on to say there were "gross inconsistencies" in the witness's trial testimony.

The girl not only testified to this during direct examination, but also said she was touched "everywhere by everyone," according to the state's response.

While the defense is correct in that the girl answered many of Moore's questions with "I don't know" in January, jurors were able to view video and weigh the girl's answers against her previous statements, according to the response.

"Not remembering does not invalidate her previous statements," the response reads.

Additionally, the girl had physical findings consistent with sexual abuse and other witness testimony corroborated the facts presented by the state, prosecutors said.

Richardson deliberated for a short period of time after hearing final arguments from jurors before returning to overrule both motions and sentence Griffith.

Griffith was asked if he knew of any legal cause he should not be convicted of the charge.

"Yes," Griffith answered, "three times being misidentified, 277 no answers (from the 4-year-old girl), along with no proof. Prejudice and bias against me due to the doings of Sherry Tucker."

Richardson found there was no legal cause. He also refused a motion by defense for Griffith to be released on bond until an appeal is heard. Appeal bonds are not allowed with certain charges, including child molestation.

Defense filed a notice of appeal yesterday.

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