The Oregon Innocence Project recently secured its first exoneration as it proved the innocence of a man falsely accused of child molestation.
Joshua Horner was accused by his 16-year-old daughter of molesting her over a nine-year period. She alleged that he had penetrated her with various objects, fondled her breasts and vagina on several occasions, and forced her to watch pornography.
She testified at trial that she was only coming forward now because her father had threatened to harm her animals and family. In fact, she stated that he had killed the family dog, a black lab with distinctive ears, right in front of her.
Horner claimed he was completely innocent and contended that the dog was still alive. He said the dog had been given away to a neighbor. However, an Oregon jury found Horner guilty and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Horner’s case attracted the attention of the Oregon Innocence Project and they agreed to handle his appeal. Innocence Project lawyers decided to take the case in part because the timing of the accusation was suspicious. The daughter’s disclosure of abuse was first made to her mother during an argument about her not doing her chores.
This was also at the same time that the daughter learned her father was going to remarry. The daughter had admitted in court she did not like her father’s new wife. She had even made an assault allegation against the new wife that was ultimately deemed baseless after a police investigation.
On appeal, the defense argued the daughter’s testimony was unreliable because she had an inability to recall details of these alleged sexual assaults. Further, they argued that the trial court had erred in allowing the prosecution to call an expert witness to testify about the girl’s memory without allowing the defendant to present its own expert. The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed Horner’s conviction.
After winning on appeal, the Innocence Project got to work on trying to locate the dog that the daughter claimed Horner killed right in front of her. The district attorney’s office even assigned an investigator to work alongside the Innocence Project to track down the dog’s whereabouts.
Contacting a local veterinarian and doing some digging eventually led them to a black lab with distinctive ears about four hours away living with Horner’s former neighbor. At this point, the district attorney’s office tried to reach out to the daughter for an explanation, but she refused to meet with them. As a result, the district attorney’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case. District Attorney John Hummel stated, “A prosecutor’s job is to seek justice, not convictions.”
Exonerations in child sexual abuse cases are rare since there is typically no DNA evidence, or any other physical evidence, that can conclusively disprove the allegations. This is highly problematic since the National Registry of Exonerations found that, between 1989 and 2012, 55% of all “no-crime exonerations” (exonerations based on false allegations where no crime was ever in fact committed), were child sex abuse cases.
This underscores just how important it is to prove the innocence of those falsely accused in child molestation cases prior to trial. Horner came very close to spending the rest of his life in prison. Unfortunately, there are likely thousands of others falsely accused just like him who were not so lucky and are still sitting in prisons across the country.
Recognizing the large number of false allegations in these cases is the first step. Next, prosecutors, detectives and defense attorneys must all do their part to investigate both sides of these cases so that evidence supporting innocence can be detected and discovered well before a defendant’s fate is decided by a jury.