Ex-deputy convicted of 2 counts

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 16, 2001

A former Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy was found guiltyThursday of felony fondling a child and misdemeanor contributing todelinquency of a juvenile, but a jury found the man not guilty of amore serious sexual battery offense.

The 10-woman, two-man jury deliberated about three hours inreaching its verdict against Matt Lofton, 23, of 1914 Ivy Trail. Heis scheduled to be sentenced Friday at 1 p.m.

“I’m pleased with the verdict,” said Assistant District AttorneyJerry Rushing, who helped prosecute the case with District AttorneyDunn Lampton. “It could be questioned about the sexual battery, butthere was no question he fondled her.”

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Lofton faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $5,000 fineon the touching, handling or feeling a child for lustful purposescharge. The minimum sentence is two years, although it could besuspended for probation.

“That’s up the judge, not us,” Rushing said.

The maximum on the contributing to delinquency charge is oneyear in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.

Wayne Dowdy, Lofton’s attorney, said an appeal is planned.

Lofton was indicted in January on the charges following anoff-duty incident involving a 15-year-old girl at a lumber yard offold Highway 51 last Oct. 29. The deputy was relieved of his dutiesabout two weeks later after an investigation by the Department ofHuman Services and agencies outside the sheriff’s department.

On the witness stand Thursday, a tearful Lofton said the girlwas the aggressor, and he detailed her actions in the incident.Lofton said his shorts never came off, and he did not remove thegirl’s denim skirt.

“The most contact I had with her was maybe putting my hand onher shoulder,” said Lofton, although he acknowledged kissing thegirl back during her advances.

Also, Lofton said it was the girl’s idea to use a soft drink totry and cover stains on her skirt. In wrapping up his directexamination, the defendant said he never had sex with the girl.

“I’ve never touched her anywhere,” Lofton said.

Lofton also testified about the girl’s frequent calls to himafter they met earlier in October. When the girl called Lofton totake her home on Oct. 29, the defendant said she made up a storyabout being sick because she did not want to be at church.

Under cross examination, Lofton was questioned about anappendectomy he had in August that he said was still sore andtender in October. He said several staples had torn and it wasimpossible to put any pressure on the area.

Lofton, who had been with the sheriff’s department sinceDecember 1999, said his fellow deputies had given up some of theirsick leave hours so he could continue to draw a paycheck after hissurgery. Lofton returned to full duty with the department in earlySeptember.

“I didn’t want them to give up any more hours than they had to,”Lofton said.

Dowdy erupted with an objection when Lampton brought up aprevious incident involving a 16-year-old girl and whether Loftonand she had had sex.

“I’m being ambushed by this,” Dowdy said as the jury was quicklyremoved from the courtroom.

Lampton said he received the information and a photo onlyminutes earlier. He contended he had a right to pursue the evidenceto show possible prior bad acts related to Lofton’s character.

Dowdy said he was not allowed to question the victim about herprior activities, and it would be unfair for Lampton to questionthe defendant. He said he was “very distressed” by the situationand asked for a mistrial.

Judge Keith Starrett sustained Dowdy’s objection on the groundsthat Lampton had not laid a sufficient foundation for questioning,but the mistrial motion was denied. Upon returning, the jury wasinstructed to give no weight to Lampton’s earlier question.

Lofton said the girl’s age was never discussed. During thetrial, Lofton contended the girl acted and appeared older.

“If I had known her exact age, I would have never spoken to herin the first place,” Lofton said.

Later in cross-examination, Lofton was asked if he thought he’ddone anything wrong.

“I should have used better judgment. I should have stopped itbefore it was about to happen,” Lofton said. “I’m sorry aboutthat.”

During closing arguments, Dowdy told jurors that Lofton’semployment was to have no bearing on their deliberations. He saidLampton’s focus on Lofton’s job was a “smoke screen” to hide thefact the prosecution could not prove penetration, which is arequirement of a sexual battery conviction.

“He’s trying to divert your attention away from the weakness oftheir case,” Dowdy said.

Lampton countered in his closing that even if jurors believedonly Lofton, he could be convicted of two charges because he hadadmitted kissing the girl and giving her a cigarette. The districtattorney said the sexual battery proof was not great, but it was”far beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The jury received the case around 3:40 p.m.

At 4:30 p.m., jurors asked for a more explicit definition offondling. Starrett said the definition they had been given duringjury instructions was sufficient and sent them back for furtherdeliberations.

Jurors returned with their verdict shortly before 7 p.m.