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Jury Returns Not Guilty Verdict In Sexual Assault Case

Heidi Dawe photo

John Kakkuzhiyil exits the Valley County District Courtroom on Thurs., Jan. 9 after the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

   Last Thursday, a Valley County District Court jury decided the fate of a Catholic priest accused of first-degree sexual assault. John Kakkuzhiyil was accused of forcible sexual assault of an adult woman in November 2018 in the rectory of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Ord. At the time, the priest was 62 and the woman was 33.

   A motion for a direct verdict was made by defense attorney Mark Porto after all of the evidence was presented. Before the case was sent to the jury, two alternate jurors were dismissed. This left a jury consisting of nine women and three men. After three days of testimony the case went to the jury on Wednesday afternoon at approximately 2:30 p.m. The jury deliberated Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning for a total of seven hours and returned a verdict of not guilty.

   During the trial, his accuser stated that she went to the priest’s home at the Catholic rectory in an attempt to interview him for a project. The two had recently taken part in a church trip to Haiti. The woman stated Kakkuzhiyil served her numerous drinks and at one point in the night she awoke to the priest performing a sex act on her.

   Kakkuzhiyil’s defense attorney, Mark Porto, contended that the action was consensual. Porto found inconsistencies in the accuser’s current testimony and what she had said in a forensic interview conducted within 24 hours of the assault. Porto stated “Father John didn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do.” Kakkuzhiyil’s attorney also stated that the incident occurred during a time in which the woman was fighting with her boyfriend. Porto implied that the woman may not have gone to the rectory intending to sleep with him, but when alcohol is involved, bad decisions are made.

   On a phone call, recorded by Valley County Sheriff Casey Hurlburt on Nov. 26, 2018, the victim asked Kakkuzhiyil to explain what happened. During the conversation, Kakkuzhiyil stated, “I had no intention of taking advantage of you”. He also said that he loved her. During the trial, the prosecution also showed body camera footage of law enforcement officers interviewing the priest at his home after the alleged assault.  In the video, the priest initially says there was a naked woman in his room, but nothing happened. After further questioning, Kakkuzhiyil said he did perform a sex act on the woman and “thought she was awake.” Kakkuzhiyil did not testify during the trial.

   The prosecuters for the state, George C. Welch and Gail VerMaas, are both assistant attorneys for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. Welch rebutted Porto’s statement saying that the woman was unconscious when the act took place and she did not give her consent. Welch urged the jury to focus on what matters. The woman also had some inconsistent statements and had trouble answering some of the questions on the stand. Welch stated that it was not the state’s business nor did it matter that Kakkuzhiyil was a priest, what was important was that he committed oral sex without the woman’s consent, which constitutes sexual assault.

   The state also presented evidence from a DNA analyst who testified that the priest’s DNA was found in the accuser’s jeans, however the analyst said that does not prove how the DNA came to be there. A nurse examiner testified to performing a sexual assault kit on the accuser and stated that the woman had injuries that, in her experience, were consistent with sexual assault; that the injury could have happened in a consensual act, but she felt it was unlikely.

   Following the reading of the verdict, Kakkuzhiyil said, “I am grateful to God, and for all the people that stood by me, believed in me and prayed for me.”

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