AUBURN — After three hours of deliberating Monday afternoon, a Cayuga County jury found a 30-year-old Cato man guilty of sexually assaulting three children.
William Lewis, of 2560 E. Mechanic St., was charged with three felonies — first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of predatory sexual assault against a child — and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.
The jury returned guilty verdicts on all of the charges. Lewis could face 20 years to life in prison.
On Monday morning, after two days of testimony, the defense and prosecution gave closing arguments in Lewis' trial. Lewis — a former mechanic's helper and substitute cleaner for the Cato-Meridian Central School District — appeared in plain clothes before the jury; he has been held without bail at the Cayuga County Jail since his arrest in March.
Cayuga County Assistant District Attorney Heather DeStefano said that from November 2014 to March 2017, Lewis sexually assaulted three preteen girls in the towns of Cato, Victory and Sterling. DeStefano said the girls were between the ages of 6 and 10 when the abuse began; they were not connected to his employment with the school district.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Donald Kelly — who was retained in this case — questioned the girls' credibility, claiming one of the girls provided testimony that was "substantially different" from the others. He focused on one incident in which Lewis allegedly assaulted all three girls at once; one of the girls stated it was light out and they were lying face up while the other two girls stated it was dark out and they were lying face down. Kelly also said one of the girls testified that Lewis narrated what he was doing while the others did not recall.
"This is not a matter of failed memory or a passage of time," Kelly said. "These questions and answers are very vanilla."
In addition, Kelly addressed a videotaped confession in which Lewis admitted to the assault, claiming Lewis was "bullied" by Cayuga County Sheriff's Sgt. Frederick Cornelius. The defense said Lewis lacked experience and education compared with Cornelius and ultimately confessed to the crimes out of confusion and compassion.
"(Lewis) eventually said, 'Why not (confess)? If it saves my kids, I'll do what I have to,'" Kelly said.
Lastly, Kelly questioned the lack of forensic evidence in the case, alleging that the sheriff's office did not search for any physical evidence because they suspected that none existed.
"The deeper you dig, you start pulling more threads ... and it all falls apart," he said.
In response, DeStefano said it was "perfectly normal to have different perspectives on the same incident," comparing it to a book report in school; everyone reads the same book, but takes something different from it. It was expected that the girls would have slightly different recollections of what happened, she said.
The ADA also refuted Kelly's claim that Lewis was pressured to confess, stating that the defendant admitted to sexually abusing each girl at least twice. She said the videotaped confession showed Lewis saying he should be "shot in the head" for what he did; Lewis was also recorded saying he tried to black out what he did to the girls by punching himself in the head and hitting a wall.
"There is no motive for these girls to lie," DeStefano said.
After the verdict, Kelly said the jury's decision was "unfortunate." He added that there was some evidence that Judge Thomas Leone ruled inadmissible at trial, evidence which dealt with the girls being exposed to a level 2 sex offender on at least one occasion.
"There was ample evidence to show that the accounts of the abuse were remarkably different and I am a little bit stunned that the jury was able to reconcile it," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that (some evidence) wasn't permitted in this case and that the district attorney was allowed to argue and put jurors in the shoes of the victims. I think there is a lot of injustice here."
“I commend these children for their bravery in confronting their abuser," Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said in a press release. "These young children testified so well and the jury obviously found them to be absolutely credible. I commend ADA Heather DeStefano for her hard work in securing this defendant’s conviction at trial. We are obviously pleased by the jury’s verdict, which was completely in line with the facts and evidence they heard. This defendant demonstrated no concern for these children and displayed absolutely no empathy during the trial, even remarking on the jail phone during the trial that he was bored. His conviction should send a loud and clear message that those who sexually abuse children will be held accountable for their actions.”
Budelman added that his office will ask for the maximum sentence of 57 years to life in prison.