The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

Local News

October 12, 2013

Elkhart man gets five life sentences for rape, kidnapping

PALESTINE — It took less than five minutes for a 10-man, two-woman jury to sentence Johnny Sutherlin, 43, of Elkhart, to the maximum five life sentences for the sexual assault and kidnapping of a woman at a Palestine apartment complex in November 2012.

The sentencing follows Thursday’s verdict by the jury — finding Sutherlin guilty of four counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of kidnapping.

During the trial, which began Tuesday at the Anderson County Courthouse, the state brought several witnesses, including the 911 operator who took the call, Palestine Police Department first responder James Headner and PPD Capt. Cathy Weber, who was the primary investigator in the case.

“Weber did an outstanding job on the investigation,” said Assistant District Attorney Scott Holden, who represented the state with fellow ADA Elizabeth Watkins during the trial. “I could not have asked for a more complete and thorough investigation than the one she conducted.”

Two forensic scientists also testified for the state in the case, with Aliese Watts of Integrated Forensic Labs of Euless first testifying as to the evidence found in the victim’s hair, positively identifying it as semen.

Forensic DNA specialist Rachel Burch of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth testified that the DNA in the semen was a match to the defendant.

“The center has received a federal grant to conduct DNA testing, and our state lab is backed up,” Holden said. “We needed an answer quickly and they gave us a turnaround of a month or less.”

As the victim was blindfolded during the assault, she was unable to (100 percent) positively identify the defendant by sight or the sound of his voice, which made the use of DNA evidence in the case that much more vital, Holden explained.

Other evidence brought before the jury during the trial included pink mason string used to tie up the victim, as well as duct tape and box cutters.

“The same string and duct tape was found at Sutherlin’s place of work and numerous box cutters were found at his home, work and in his vehicle,” Holden said. “Witnesses also identified his vehicle — a two-tone red Dodge pickup with a chrome toolbox — as having been at the apartment complex just 20 minutes prior to the assault.”

Pictures taken of the victim the morning after the assault by sexual assault nurse examiner Jessi Jones, RN,  showed bright red ligature marks and abrasions around the victim’s wrists and ankles, along with internal injuries.

Sutherlin testified on his own behalf during the trial, stating that he had been at the victim’s apartment complex the evening before and had used her restroom.

“I may be an idiot, but I am not a rapist,” Sutherlin testified.

Immediately after the verdict was read by Anderson County District Judge Pam Foster Fletcher at about 10 a.m. Friday, Sutherlin was ordered confined to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The sentences will be served concurrent, or run together, and Sutherlin will be eligible for parole after 30 years.

“Having already served two previous prison terms, I really feel like Sutherlin will be incarcerated for the rest of his natural born days,” Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe said.

“As brutal as the crime was, this was the only appropriate sentence in this case,” Holden said later. “Our community spoke loudly — this brutal of a crime deserves the maximum punishment.”

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According to trial testimony and evidence, the assault occurred in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2012, at an apartment complex located near the Walmart Supercenter in Palestine.

“Sutherlin had been there to visit the woman at about 9 p.m. the day before,” Holden said, describing the man as an acquaintance of the woman. “She had thought it was the pizza man at first, and while she felt it was a little odd that he was there, she allowed him to enter and use the restroom.”

A few hours later, at the time of incident, the victim was watching television in her apartment when she looked over and saw a man standing in her doorway holding a knife.

“She was terrified,” Holden said. “He told her to shut up and threatened her. She felt there was nothing she could do but comply.”

The defendant blind-folded and gagged the victim and tied up her ankles and wrists with zip ties. He used the pink mason string to tie her to the bed, where he proceeded to sexually assault and sodomize her.

Investigators were not certain how Sutherlin, a maintenance man at another apartment complex, gained entry into the woman’s apartment, but felt that he either unlocked a window during a previous visit or had a master key.

“The door was not opened by force,” Holden said. “Law enforcement found footprints outside the victim’s window and hand imprints where the window could have been pushed up.”

Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at mrainwater@palestineherald.com

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