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After 14 years, retrial frees man in rape case

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Michael Porter paused at the courthouse door, his blue eyes tinged red from all the crying. A jury had just acquitted him of rape, and now here he was, at 12:30 a.m. Saturday, just a few feet and a glass door away from freedom.

He stared out into the misty night, at the trees and headlights of passing cars. A court bailiff said, "Okay, Michael, you can go." But for Porter, 42, it wasn't that simple.

"I've been waiting for this for 14 years," he said in a thick, Texas twang. "Now I'm scared to walk out that door."

Fourteen years. That's how long Porter had been in prison until his trial last week in a New Port Richey courtroom. In 1988, a Pasco jury convicted him on multiple charges of sexual battery in connection with the rape of a nurse at a Holiday motel. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

But this February, a federal appeals court in Atlanta ordered a new trial. Two police reports, produced by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, had never been turned over to the defense prior to the 1988 trial. That, the appeals court said, was a "highly disturbing" violation of discovery rules.

The six jurors who considered Porter's fate last week could not be told about the history of the case, the 1988 conviction, the years in prison.

After the verdict, they found out. Juror Tina Chandler, who had smiled at Porter as she left the courtroom, reacted with shock at the news. Her knees buckled, and she began to cry.

"He was probably a guilty man . . .," she said. "I knew it."

But Chandler and jury foreman Richard Duncan said they did not have enough evidence to convict him. The victim's testimony, they said, was filled with inconsistencies they could not overlook.

"We had to do our duty . . . based on the facts and the evidence that we had," Duncan said. "We needed more evidence."

In fact, prosecutors had planned to offer more evidence against Porter.

Porter's ex-wife was prepared to testify that she had endured an attack similar to the rape of the nurse. At the 1988 trial, she testified that Porter used a belt to choke her during a brutal attack. The nurse, now a 65-year-old woman, testified last week that the rapist had used a leather Western belt in a similar fashion.

No appeals court had ever questioned the prosecution's use of Susan Porter's testimony at the first trial. But last week, Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray ruled that prosecutors could not elicit that testimony from Susan Porter. The two incidents, the judge said, were not enough alike to show a pattern of behavior.

"I'm sorry that the judge saw it necessary to suppress evidence from a key witness," the victim said after the verdict.

Prosecutor Scott Andringa built his case around the victim's unequivocal courtroom identification of Porter as the rapist. He also relied on a Marlboro cigarette butt found on the kitchen floor of the victim's room at the La-Rue Motel on U.S. 19. Tests showed that DNA patterns on the cigarette matched samples taken from Porter.

Andringa declined to comment on the verdict.

Defense attorney John Swisher urged jurors to reject the state's evidence. The victim's identification of Porter cannot be trusted, he said.

In the hours following the rape, she told investigators that she never got a look at her attacker's face.

But the rough description she provided that night, Swisher argued, fit neatly with the height, weight and age of a second suspect in the case. The issue of the second suspect, Tony Hawkins, never came up at the first trial. His name did not surface until 1994, when an investigator working for Porter discovered two police reports among case records at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Hawkins died in 1990.

The victim's first identification of Porter came at a 1987 pretrial hearing. She has not wavered since.

She testified in this trial that she knew all along that Porter was the rapist, but fearing for her safety, she waited until he was arrested before identifying him. She said that during the attack, he threatened to kill her if she ever identified him.

"I've always felt safe with him behind bars," she said. "Now, I don't feel safe at all."

At the 1988 trial, the victim said that Porter, who stayed briefly at the motel, had never been in her room before the attack. Last week, though, she said Porter had visited her room a week before the June 1987 rape, and the two had talked briefly.

Porter took the stand on Friday and testified that he was at a Hudson home during the time of the rape. Yes, he said, he smoked Marlboros, but he doesn't know how one of his cigarettes ended up in the victim's room. He said he had never been in the room, although he had seen the victim around the motel. It was Porter, in fact, who asked that a DNA test be conducted on the cigarette, which was mentioned in the police reports discovered in 1994 and had never been an issue until then.

Asked what was on his mind now that he was finally a free man, he said, "Getting the hell up on out of here, away from this courthouse."

"It's not even reality yet," he said. "I waited 14 years for this new trial, okay . . . And the idea they would have found me guilty again . . ."

His voice trailed off. He hugged his fiancee, a woman who gave her name as Mary Porter.

"When you're falsely accused and in prison for something you didn't do," he said, "you get the determination to keep going."

And then he drove away. He said he was headed to the county jail in Land O'Lakes, where he was held during the trial, to pick up his belongings. Beyond that, he had no definite plans.

"I think I'm going to do just fine."

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com .

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