Jury returns verdict in trial of man accused of forcible sodomy

5th District Court in St. George, Utah | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

ST. GEORGE —  A jury for the 5th District Court announced Friday afternoon it had reached a verdict in the case of a Washington City man, Ivan Daniel Zaragoza, accused of sexually assaulting a woman during a party in 2017.

More than two years after the charge was filed, the jury reached its verdict following a three-day trial that began Wednesday. After two hours of deliberation, the jury found the defendant not guilty of either on one count of first-degree forcible sodomy or the lesser charge of forcible sexual abuse.

The case 

Zaragoza went on trial Wednesday on a case centered on allegations the defendant sexually assaulted as 27-year-old woman in the bathroom of a home on Indian Hills Drive during a party in October 2017.

At the time of the alleged assault, the woman told officers she had taken two shots of alcohol and had begun drinking a hard lemonade before excusing herself to go to the restroom, leaving her drink unattended. The next memory the woman had was waking up in the hospital as a sexual assault kit was being performed on her, according to charging documents filed with the courts.

Several witnesses at the party described the woman as “not in good shape” and that she was throwing up, unable to walk and not alert. One witness told police the bathroom had been occupied for 20 minutes, causing a line to form at the door. And when no one would answer the locked bathroom door, one man said he pounded on it until it opened.

Several witnesses said they saw the woman on the ground as Zaragoza got off her and buttoned his pants, according to the statement. The man who opened the door said the woman’s eyes were rolling back, and she was foaming at the mouth. He told police he suspected she had been drugged. Zaragoza was kicked out of the party and the woman was taken to the hospital.

During closing arguments Friday, prosecutor Ryan Shaum addressed the jury by saying that the question before the court was whether the act was consensual, reminding the panel that the woman involved “has no memory of the event.”

5th Judicial District Courthouse, St. George, Utah, date unspecified | File photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

The prosecutor said that lack of consent was supported by the witnesses who testified in court, many of whom testified that they were troubled by what they saw when the bathroom door opened.

Shaum also said that even though there were slight variations in the accounts given during testimony, one thing was certain. According to witness testimony, “when that door opened, things just weren’t right.”

Even the defendant’s statements to police was an account of the woman’s condition, which Shaum recounted during his closing argument, saying that the defendant said, “all of a sudden, she got super drunk. She fell into the bathtub. I couldn’t pick her up.”

Shaum then asked if that sounded like an individual who could consent to sexual activity.

Shaum went on to say the jury does not have all of the pieces to the puzzle, but there are enough pieces to see that the crime occurred, using the analogy that even if sections of a photograph of a Christmas tree are missing, it is still distinguishable as a Christmas tree.

The same applies here, he said. There is enough evidence to paint the picture of what happened on that night in the bathroom, and it doesn’t take away from the big picture.

Based on the evidence, Shaum asked the jury to find the defendant’s act intentional and convict him of forcible sodomy. At the very least, he said, the defendant’s actions were reckless, in which case he should be convicted of the lesser charge, forcible sexual abuse.

Defense attorney, Ken Combs, began his closing argument by saying, “The system is fair if everyone does their job.”

Combs went on to say the jury’s role is to determine the truthfulness of the facts, reminding them that the state has the burden to prove the case, and the defendant has no such obligation in proving his innocence.

The key element to this offense is consent, he said, and yet there was no blood draw on the accuser, which would have been important to determine if she was able to give consent, or whether she was too intoxicated to do so.

“The state failed to bring you that evidence,” he said.

Combs also reminded the jury that the accuser’s statements changed, where she remembered enough to say she didn’t have sex with the defendant and then later said she didn’t remember.

He also went over the lack of evidence, saying the accuser never told anyone that she told the defendant “no” during any exchange with the defendant and there were no calls to 911. Even the forensic examiner could not confirm forcible sodomy, Combs said. There was also no evidence that the woman was unconscious because of her own conflicting statements.

“On the one hand, she doesn’t remember what happened in the bathroom,” Combs said. ” On the other hand, she remembers what happened in the bathroom.”

Combs also said the case involves a serious crime, and the state had the burden to prove his client committed it.

“We’re not talking about traffic tickets here. We are talking about forcible sodomy,” Combs said.

Even if the case is a puzzle, Combs said, when there are big pieces of that puzzle that are missing, “that is a problem.”

Shaum countered by saying that while mistakes were made in the case, none of them were fatal, and the evidence presented during trial was enough to convict the defendant, regardless of whether the woman went in and out of consciousness or had memory lapses.

Referring to the the night of the party, Shaum said, “Something happened in that bathroom. Something bad.”

2016 case still pending 

The defendant has a second case from 2016 that will likely go to trial involving two charges: first-degree felony rape and third-degree felony tampering with a witness. The charges stem from an incident reported in July 2016 when officers were dispatched to Dixie Regional Medical Center after an 18-year-old woman arrived at the hospital reporting she was raped by the defendant during a birthday party at a hotel.

The woman was taken to the hospital by a family member, and the incident was reported to police.

The defendant is scheduled to be back in court on that case Jan. 7 for a status hearing on that case.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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