LIBERTY, Texas — DNA testing delays prompted a judge Wednesday to push back until October the cases of 14 men accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl that have horrified and divided their small southeast Texas town.
The men are part of a group of 19 individuals charged in the alleged assaults. Twelve of them, including one who remains jailed, appeared in state district court for status updates on their cases. Two others who remain jailed did not appear in court but also had their cases reset.
Prosecutor Joe Warren asked for delays in the cases because it could be another four to six weeks before DNA testing of evidence is complete. The testing is being done by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
"I'm going to pressure the state to pressure the DPS lab to get whatever analysis as quickly as possible," state District Judge Mark Morefield said.
Morefield reset the 14 men's cases for Oct. 3. Five juvenile boys also have been charged.
During the hearing, Warren told the judge his office was in tentative negotiations with at least one of the defendants, Jared McPherson. Warren did not say if he was referring to a possible plea agreement and he declined to comment after the hearing. McPherson's attorney also declined to comment. A gag order is preventing those connected to the case from commenting.
The investigation began in December, after one of the girl's friends told a teacher he had seen a lurid cell phone video that showed the girl being raped in an abandoned trailer. The case became public after arrests were made in February.
Authorities say the girl was assaulted on at least five occasions, sometimes by as many as seven or eight young men or boys at a time, from mid-September to early December in Cleveland, a small town about 45 miles northeast of Houston. Court proceedings are being held in the nearby town of Liberty, the county seat.
The suspects range in age from a middle-school student to a 27-year-old, and include two star athletes at the local high school as well as adults with criminal records.
Most of the adult suspects face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, while four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child. Most have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond, while one, 26-year-old Marcus Porchia, was charged after his arrest with sexually assaulting another girl in an unrelated case. Porchia, who remains jailed, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to the sexual assault charge in the unrelated case.
The case shined a sometimes unflattering spotlight on Cleveland after some in the town of about 9,000 residents suggested the girl was culpable in part for what happened, claiming she wore makeup and looked older. Some also accused her parents, immigrants from Mexico, of not watching her more closely. Those suggestions were sharply criticized by many Cleveland residents and by community and religious groups outside the city.
Also complicating the case was a belief by many in the predominantly black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are black, while the girl is Hispanic.
The girl, now 12, remains in foster care while her parents, who have health problems and moved out of Cleveland after receiving threatening phone calls, work with state child welfare authorities to get her back.