Editor’s note: The following report includes details of alleged sexual battery of children.
Twin sisters who once lived at Palmer Home for Children testified Tuesday that as children they sometimes woke up to their house parent sexually assaulting them.
The sisters, now 20, were the first witnesses called in the sexual battery trial of 45-year-old Seth Copes in Lowndes County Circuit Court. If convicted, Copes faces up to 20 years in prison.
The twins testified they moved to the Columbus children’s home in 2006 when they were about 7 years old. They lived in a cottage with Copes and his wife. Both said they called him “dad” and that he was the preferred parent, who took them to sports practice and, according to one twin, let them watch R-rated movies behind his wife’s back. That closeness, they said, kept them from coming forward with the sexual abuse allegations until 2013.
Copes and his wife, who worked at Palmer Home for seven years, were both terminated after the twins’ allegations came to light.
The Dispatch does not identify victims in sexual battery cases.
The first twin specified three occasions when she was about 7 when Copes went into the bedroom she shared with her twin and touched her inappropriately. She also said she once saw Copes on top of her twin one night when the twins had pushed their beds together.
She said the abuse stopped within months, after another girl in the house told Copes’ wife that Copes had assaulted her.
“Seth was our dad and the good outweighed the bad,” she said. “… I thought I could move past it. … He could still be our dad and we could forget.”
The second twin testified to multiple occasions of sexual assault when she was 7 or 8, which she said stopped when she was “older.” She said Copes sometimes came into her bedroom at night and other times assaulted her in the living room.
At the time, she told another Palmer Home female resident that Copes had assaulted her, but said she retracted it after the girl went to Copes’ wife with accusations. The victim said she didn’t tell anyone until years later when she told her aunt at age 15.
Though both twins appeared to become choked up on the stand, their demeanors were different, with the first appearing defiant while the second was more conversational in her testimony.
Copes’ attorney, Thomas Pavlinic of Maryland, only cross-examined the first twin.
Questions of evidence
Throughout the day, the jury spent multiple hours out of the courtroom while attorneys argued over what evidence could be presented.
Presiding Judge Jim Kitchens first sent the jury out during opening statements after Pavlinic said one of the victims had been “sexting” on an electronic device she borrowed from Copes’ daughter not long before the victims made their accusations public in 2013.
Kitchens then told Pavlinic he could not bring up sexual behavior by either victim in front of the jury, referencing a ruling he made in an earlier hearing.
If there is a question about whether a certain piece of evidence can come up, Kitchens said, the attorneys had to approach the bench and ask Kitchens about it away from the jury “instead of bypassing what I told you to do.”
“I don’t want to put something in front of the jury, to poison the jury, before we’ve had the chance to rule on it,” he said.
The question of what evidence could be presented came up again later in the afternoon. While preparing to cross-examine the second witness, Pavlinic wanted to make sure he could ask her where she may have seen what sex organs looked like, which Kitchens ruled was fine. However, Kitchens would not let Pavlinic ask why she referred to herself in her testimony as “the bad one.”
Kitchens said Pavlinic could ask about specific behavioral incidents that showed why the victims may have wanted to leave Palmer Home, demonstrating a motivation for accusing Copes. However he could not use the behavioral issues to prejudice the jury, particularly by bringing up sexual impropriety — for example, Kitchens said, Pavlinic could bring up that the victim had apparently stolen and broken Copes’ daughter’s electronic device, but he could not bring up that she apparently used it to send inappropriate pictures to a boy.
“It has to do with the problems the Copes were having with this girl,” Pavlinic argued. “… She described herself as ‘the bad one.’ They opened that door.”
“What you’re trying to do is attack her character,” he said. “That is not permissible.”
Assistant district attorneys Collen Hudson and Scott Rogillio also objected to some of Pavlinic’s evidence on the grounds they were not provided with it in discovery — a legal term referring to evidence attorneys provide each other with before the trial.
After some back and forth, Kitchens requested a copy of the discovery the defense gave the state. After looking over it, he said it was not detailed enough, particularly with regards to what Copes’ wife plans to testify about, calling it a three-sentence “blurb.”
“There’s nothing that even gives them a clue what she’s going to talk about,” Kitchens said. “… They’re entitled to know something about what she’s going to say.”
After several more minutes, Kitchens ruled that he would send the jury home early and that prosecutors would spend the afternoon interviewing Copes’ wife and a handful of other witnesses for the defense.
The trial continues today.
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