A Faulkner County jury has found Matthew Brian Burnside, 45, guilty of two counts rape and one count sexual assault of a minor. The jury gave its verdict after less than three hours’ deliberation.
The jury returned a sentence of 100 years incarceration — 40 years each for the crimes of rape and 20 for sexual assault. This is the statutory maximum sentence for the offenses short of life in prison.
Prosecutors Troy Braswell and Rebekah Crews used their closing arguments on Wednesday morning to focus the jury’s attention on those areas of consistency in the young victim’s testimony and to dismiss the inconstancies and failures of memory as the predictable result of a young girl recounting a traumatic event.
Braswell told the jury that the girl’s demeanor on the stand was consistent with her demeanor in police interviews, and asked if “I don’t know,” “I don’t want to think about it,” and “I don’t want to talk about it,” paraphrasing the victim’s answers to questions from both prosecutors and defense attorney Otto R. Fry, were “statements from someone who has concocted this huge ploy to take down Matthew Burnside?”
“How’s she supposed to act up here?” Braswell also said. “Do you not want to see any emotion; any pain; any frustration; any confusion?”
Fry, in his closing statement, said that it was a difficult case for the jury to decide, but that “I don’t know” wasn’t enough to find guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a case hinging on victim testimony.
“This is a hard case … but what happens when the state’s chief witness gives what I would call inconsistent testimony?,” Fry told the jury. “…That may be unfortunate for the State of Arkansas, but it’s their burden.
Fry pointed to a sexual attack described in brief but uncomfortable detail in police interviews that the victim said she couldn’t remember saying or happening when questioned on both direct and cross examination as presenting “an issue of credibility.”
Also a credibility problem, Fry told the jury, was the apparent lack of “basic” knowledge by the victim, who is now a young teenager, as to the sexual activity that would meet the state statutory definition of rape given that she would have had sexual education and had brought an adult-themed novel to school on the day she told her friends and her school counselor that she had been sexually abused by Burnside.
It took a few attempts at rephrasing questions before Crews elicited testimony from the victim to establish the elements of the crime.
“You heard testimony that is not sufficient,” Fry said. “You heard testimony of ‘I don’t know’ … and that was not on cross examination, that was on direct and did you not hear her being spoon-fed? You can’t convict somebody on that.
Crews, in the state’s final closing argument, told the jury that the victim had told the jury what happened to her with details including general specific time periods and three different specific locations. Also, she told the jury, the young girl’s “breaking down” on the stand in front of the prosecutor and not “saving her breakdown for the defense attorney” should be counted toward her credibility.
The jury did find the girl’s testimony credible, and was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Burnside was guilty of rape and sexual assault.
"I think Faulkner County juries continue to send a message to monsters who rape children that it's not going to be tolerated in this district," 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland said. "One of the things that struck me about this case is the courage demonstrated by the young teen victim with her unique challenges. It's hard to fight through your fear, but she was able to do that and say what needed to be said in order to allow a jury to convict. And we can all learn a lesson from a young lady that was willing to face her attacker despite her fear."
Hiland also commended Braswell and Crews for their work in the courtroom and FCSO investigator Chad Wooley for his testimony and investigation of the case.
At the two-day trial were about a dozen members of Bikers Against Child Abuse, an international organization that works to make child victims feel safer and more cared-for by having its members stand guard outside courtrooms and wherever else they’re needed to lend physical and emotional support — including outside a victim’s house if necessary.