By MARY RAINWATER
PALESTINE — A 10-man, 2-woman Anderson County jury sentenced a 48-year-old Tucker man to 40 years in prison without possibility of parole for five counts of sexual misconduct, including the charge of Continuous Sexual Assault of a Child, on Thursday.
The trial of Ronald Van Zant, presided over by State District Judge Bascom W. Bentley III, began Tuesday and concluded at about 5 p.m. on Thursday at the Anderson County Courthouse.
The jury took less than 30 minutes on Thursday morning to reach “guilty” verdicts on the five counts of sexual misconduct.
A verdict of “not guilty” for one count of Indecency of a Child by Contact was returned based on the recommendation of Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Watkins, who tried the case for the prosecution.
During the guilt and innocence phase of the trial, the District Attorney’s office presented testimony from five witnesses, including the male victim, now 20, who was a pre-teen during the molestation.
Detective David Kassaw of the Palestine Police Department testified about his investigation into the abuse allegations. Because of the delay in reporting the crime, Kassaw explained he was not able to gather physical evidence to support the victim’s story.
The victim, who at the time of the assaults was a pre-teen boy, reported to authorities that he had been repeatedly molested by Van Zant over a 3-year period. During court testimony the victim said he waited to tell anyone about the assaults until he was no longer around Van Zant and “felt safe.”
“We knew this would be a tough case to prove,” ADA Watkins said. “Crimes against children happen behind closed doors, usually with no other witnesses besides the victims themselves. This places an enormous burden on them to be able to relate their story.
“The victim was at times very emotional, crying and shaking as he told jurors of abuses that went on for several years,” Watkins added. “He felt ashamed and fearful of the defendant.”
Van Zant admitted that he had physically assaulted the victim during an argument over a cell-phone but consistently denied any sexual abuse.
The defendant did not react when Judge Bentley read the jury’s verdicts, according to reports.
The jury reached its verdict on punishment at 4:50 p.m. on Thursday, after evidence was presented by the state and defense.
During the punishment phase, the District Attorney’s office called one witness — a relative of the defendant who told jurors he suffered the same abuse at the hands of the defendant when they were younger.
“We were pleased to be able to let this witness testify in the punishment portion,” Watkins said. “He never reported his crime to authorities, but was able to have closure by letting the jury know that this was not an isolated incident.”
District Attorney Doug Lowe explained that many times jurors are not allowed to hear about other bad acts by the defendant during the guilt/innocence phase of trial “because the law does not allow us to put on evidence of other crimes.”
“The system is designed so that defendants receive a fair trial based upon the evidence of the specific crime for which they are charged,” Lowe said. “However, when we speak to jurors in other cases about evidence of the crime, they always ask ‘what else has he done?’”
In addition to the 40 year no-parole sentence for Continuous Sexual Assault, Van Zant was ordered to serve maximum sentences on four additional counts of sexual misconduct:
• Count 2, Indecency with a Child by Exposure, third degree felony – 10 years
• Count 3, Indecency with A Child by Contact, second degree felony – 20 years
• Count 5, Sexual Assault of a Child, second degree felony – 20 years
• Count 6, Sexual Assault of a Child, second degree felony – 20 years
All sentences will be served concurrently, meaning the time for these four counts will be served at the same time as the 40 years without parole.
Continuous Sexual Assault of a Child carries a possible punishment of a minimum of 25 years to maximum of life and is one of only three Texas crimes that does not allow for parole. The others are Capital Murder and what is referred to as “Super” Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child.
“The victim is relieved this case is behind him. He is an amazing young man and I know he will do great things in spite of the crimes committed on him,” Lowe said. “I appreciate the fine job Ms. Watkins did in trying this case and the jury’s work in listening to this very emotionally difficult case.”