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Tyrone rape verdict overturned

The Georgia Court of Appeals has overturned the conviction of a Sharpsburg man for raping a 16-year-old girl at her Tyrone home in 2005.

The ruling, handed down Monday, determined that Zachary Higgins’ defense attorney erred by failing to object in detail to evidence that may have tainted the jury’s guilty verdict in the March 2009 trial in Fayette County Superior Court.

Defense attorney Steve Harris should have objected to the jury being provided with sentencing details from an unrelated child molestation case in Coweta County Juvenile Court in which Higgins admitted to molesting a 4-year-old girl, according to the court’s ruling.

Because there was evidence presented at trial that the alleged rape encounter was consensual, the appeals court determined Higgins may have been found not guilty if not for the details provided to the jury from the child molestation case.

The victim testified at the trial that Higgins forced her to have oral sex against her will. She also testified that she waited more than two years to report the rape because she was “ashamed” and she couldn’t believe it had happened.

Several other witnesses testified that the victim later bragged about having sex with Higgins. Higgins did not testify, a strategic decision based on the fact that the jury wouldn’t believe him based on him being an admitted child molester, Harris told The Citizen following the trial.

After the jury’s guilty verdict in the case, Superior Court Judge Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. sentenced Higgins to 35 years in prison, 25 of which were mandatory per Georgia law on the rape charge.

Higgins, who was 17 at the time of the incident, is now 22 and currently is incarcerated at a Georgia prison facility.

The Court of Appeals noted that Harris had objected generally to the admission of the child molestation case.

Harris, however, should have offered a specific objection when the court allowed a police investigator to read details from the juvenile court child molestation case to the jury, the Court of Appeals ruled.

The Court of Appeals also noted that an unredacted copy of the juvenile court disposition order was published to the jury, allowing jurors to learn that:
• Higgins admitted to molesting the girl;
• Higgins “was in need of treatment and rehabilitation” that would occur while he was on probation for two years;
• Higgins was ordered not to reside in the same household with his 12-year-old sister or any child younger than himself;
• Higgins was ordered to “not be left unsupervised with any children younger than he is,” and
• Higgins was required to attend an outpatient sex offender treatment program.

The fact the disposition order was unredacted was significant because prosecutors had agreed to redact certain elements from the document before publishing it to the jury, according to the Appeals Court ruling.

Higgins was represented on the appellate case by W. Charles Lea of the law firm Garland, Samuel and Loeb.

Lea said today that District Attorney Scott Ballard has indicated he will seek to retry the case.

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