By David Webb
CORSICANA, TX -- A Navarro County jury took only two hours on Jan. 11 to convict former Ellis County Observer blog publisher Joseph G. Dauben of three counts of child sexual assault and one count of indecency with a child in connection with a 2007 crime at a church camping trip.
Judge James Lagomarsino of 13th District Court sent the jury home for the weekend, ordering it to return the following Monday to begin punishment proceedings. Dauben could be sentenced to up to 80 years in prison if the jury opts not to give him probation.
Before the court recessed, defense attorney Ed Jendrzey called Dauben to the witness stand, and the former blogger told the jury he accepted their verdict. During his testimony he told the jury about his conviction in Ellis County in November of fraudulent use of identifying information when he published a story about a man he falsely accused of sexual abuse -- the same crime of which he is now convicted.
Dauben said that he has come to realize that his reckless reporting without regard for the truth on his blog and in his newspapers had injured many people. That realization apparently left him at a loss for words when his attorney asked him if he wanted the jury to grant him probation and prosecutor Andrew Wolf challenged him to tell the jury why he might deserve it.
The defendant admitted that in the past he had written that no one convicted of child sexual assault should ever be given probation and that it should result instead in an "automatic death sentence" or at the very least life in prison.
"If they were to hold me to the same standard that I frequently issued from the Ellis County Observer then I would have to say no," said Dauben, who sobbed through much of his testimony and seemed unable to ask the jury for probation. "I was unmerciful, and I was unforgiving."
When Wolf asked him to acknowledge responsibility for the molestation of a 14-year-old male at a church camping trip in 2007 for which the jury convicted him, Dauben would not. In response to the prosecutor asking him if he was still claiming he was being falsely accused, the defendant answered, "I'm not going to say I did something when I didn't," Dauben said.
"Probation is for rehabilitation," Wolf said. "Do you think it is possible to rehabilitate someone who doesn't admit they've done something wrong?"
Dauben told the jury that he still thought he would benefit from probation, and he understood all of its conditions, which include lifetime registration as a sex offender and treatment.
Near the conclusion of his testimony, Dauben finally responded with a weak, "Yes," as his attorney prodded him to tell the jury whether he was asking it for probation.
"If your hearts are as loving and forgiving and merciful as mine has changed into, then I'm asking you for probation," said Dauben, who claims to have had a spiritual awakening while serving time in jail in Ellis County in Waxahachie after his conviction last year. He was released on $50,000 bond in Navarro County Dec. 21, just about two weeks before his trial began on the sexual assault charges in Corsicana.
Dauben said he realized that his days in journalism are over, and that if he is released on bond he will get a "real job."
While on the stand Dauben told the jury that some of the stories he published under the Ellis County Observer banner benefited Ellis County. He cited the closure of Kevin's House, a halfway house where he claimed probationers allegedly got sexually assaulted, as one of them. He said he also uncovered a child pornography ring and a link between missing children in Dallas-Fort Worth, West Texas and Seattle that ties back to Ellis County.
Dauben continued to sob as he spoke of the "evil" he had seen, and he claimed that "nothing is being done about it."
Prior to the jury's deliberations, Judge Lagomarsino took the unusual step of reopening the evidence portion of the trial on the request of the defense over the objections of the prosecution to allow evidence to be entered that showed electronic communications between the witness and the victim had been sent to the Texas Rangers for its investigation.
During the closing arguments the prosecution acknowledged that law enforcement agencies had failed to properly handle the complaint the mother of the victim attempted to file with several of them.
"The ball was dropped," Wolf said. "There was a gap there that shouldn't have been."
Jendrzey told the jury that it is "difficult to prove something didn't happen" once a criminal complaint reaches the indictment stage. He claimed that Dauben had cooperated fully with investigators working on the case, acknowledging being at the church camping trip, drinking with the teenagers and going for the boat ride -- every major point except providing the alcohol and sexually assaulting the 14-year-old in a park shower house.
Prosecutor Amy Cadwell seemed to acknowledge in her closing statement that Dauben might not have provided the alcohol when she said that it didn't matter if the victim brought it from his father's tent. As the adult, Dauben had the responsibility to keep the situation under control, she said.
Cadwell said the fact that Dauben confirmed most of what the victim alleged in his "outcry," showed his guilt. "Joey knew exactly what he had done," she said. "He knew he had committed sexual assault."
After the conviction, District Attorney Lowell Thompson said his office would ask the jury to assess prison time for Dauben, and he expressed confidence that justice had been served.
"If I don't believe it happened or that it is valid, I would never prosecute it," Thompson said.
A group of representatives of the Child Advocacy Center in Navarro County attended the last two days of the trial, but the victim and his family members who testified over a two-day period earlier in the week did not.
Dauben's girlfriend with whom he has been involved for about a year moved out of state prior to the trial and did not return for it. The defendant said she urged him to take the witness stand in his own defense, while his lawyer, family and friends urged him not to do that.
After Judge Lagomarsino sent the jury home, he granted a defense motion to allow Dauben to return home for the weekend over the prosecution's objections. The defendant's ankle monitor that was removed for the trial was reattached by a probation department representative.
Judge Lagomarsino warned Dauben to return Monday for the punishment phase and to not contact any witnesses in the case.
"It probably will do you well to lay low and remain close to home this weekend," Judge Lagomarsino said.
When the punishment phase continues, Dauben's parents are expected to testify and plead with the jury to give their son probation.
Former Palmer Mayor Don Huskins has already testified that he believes Dauben should be granted probation. The former mayor, who was previously Dauben's landlord, said he never had any concern about the defendant being around his children, and that he never had any problems with him.
"Today is my birthday," said, who told the jury he thinks Dauben has a "good heart" and that he helped the City of Palmer when he lived there. "If I didn't believe in him, I wouldn't be here."
Dauben left the courtroom with his obviously distraught parents for what could be his last weekend of freedom for many years. The prosecution has already filed a motion asking Judge Lagomarsino to stack the sentences handed down by the jury, rather than letting him serve them concurrently.