Facing 80 years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl, a Frankfort man has asked for a new trial by claiming the prosecution’s closing arguments unduly influenced the jury's decision.
Travis A. Durrum, 30, appeared in court Thursday for the motion hearing. A jury recently convicted him of several sex crimes in connection with the alleged abuse of the girl in Franklin County between Oct. 1, 2016, and Nov. 13, 2017, and recommended he spend 80 years in prison. However, Durrum’s defense attorney argued in court Thursday that “prosecutor misconduct” on the part of Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland significantly influenced the jury’s decision.
Defense attorney Mark Bubenzer said that in closing arguments it is appropriate for prosecutors to comment on weight of the evidence but improper to opine about a witness’ character. He pointed to a statement from Cleveland's closing argument that the child was “the most credible witness I ever saw” and “everything she told you is true” as examples. And, Bubenzer said, that amounted to prosecutor misconduct.
“Mr. Cleveland’s statements to the jury indicated he knew the crime happened and he was vouching for the credibility of witness,” Bubenzer argued. “That has a significant impact on a jury. Without that statement, it was up to them to determine credibility.”
Bubenzer added that while the court is not apt to take a decision away from a jury, he believed the circumstances rose to such a level as to require a new trial.
Cleveland responded that the judge instructs the jury to not consider what the attorneys say as evidence and that the statement was not egregious enough to raise an objection weeks ago during the trial. He also said the court had to consider the totality of the evidence presented at trial to determine the impact the statement had on a jury's decision.
“The fundamental issue is whether or not this was so egregious to make the trial ultimately unfair,” Cleveland said. “… Is it a substantial possibility that made a difference? In this case, I submit it did not.”
Cleveland added that since it only took the jury 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict, that demonstrated the evidence was substantially in favor of conviction even before his closing argument.
“Clearly they did not accept the defendant’s version of facts,” he said. “They clearly accepted this child’s testimony.”
Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate held the matter of a new trial under advisement and will issue an order at a later date.
In late June, Durrum was convicted of first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sodomy, both Class B felonies, and first-degree criminal abuse of a child younger than 12 and first-degree sexual abuse of a victim younger than 12, both Class C felonies.
If the conviction stands, Wingate will also have the last say on whether to accept the jury’s sentence for Durrum of 80 years, which he will have to serve 85% of before being considered for parole.
According to official reports, the child was in foster care before being housed with the Durrums. She was placed in the care of Travis’ wife, 25-year-old Juanita Durrum, because relatives receive preference in foster child cases. While living with the Durrums, the juvenile endured sexual and physical abuse on multiple occasions over the course of more than a year, prosecutors allege.
Juanita Durrum was charged with physical abuse of the child, but the charges were dropped. She later pleaded guilty to outstanding charges she played a role in an alleged drug deal turned double homicide.