A former house parent at Palmer Home sentenced to spend 40 years in prison told a jury Friday he did not molest three girls living with him at the Columbus children’s home.
The jury found Seth Copes, 45, guilty on two counts of sexual battery later that day, ending a week-long trial. Copes’ testimony was the last the jury heard before deliberating.
Copes and his wife worked at Palmer Home for Children from 2006-13. Both were terminated after twin girls, now 20, living at the children’s home with them reported Copes had touched them inappropriately in 2006 when they were about 7 or 8. While the twins are the only victims named in Copes’ 2013 indictment, another girl living in the home at the time, who is now 21, testified Copes had molested her at around the same time.
The Dispatch does not identify victims of sex crimes.
During his testimony, Copes talked about the time he spent living at a Palmer Home “cottage” with his wife and daughters, the twins, the third witness and several other girls. He talked about how he drove the children to and from sports practices and games, and how he and his wife, Kara, would determine consequences for rule-breaking — along with input from other employees at Palmer Home for severe rule violations.
He maintained on the stand he never molested any of the girls.
Seth Copes was sentenced to 20 years for each count in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. The victims had both said they thought he should be in prison for the rest of his life.
“You got 5 -1/2 years to roam around,” one of the twins told him from the stand at the sentencing hearing, referring to Seth Copes’ freedom while he awaited trial. “I’m glad you got a last Thanksgiving.”
Defense: Accusers were ‘hot under the collar’
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys argued the twins accused Seth Copes because they wanted to leave Palmer Home, whose rules one twin, in particular, was constantly breaking.
“All three of these girls by … July 2013 were hot under the collar,” defense attorney Patrick Rand of Richland said during closing arguments.
He pointed out the accusations came right after a phone conversation between Copes and the twins in which Copes had threatened to pull their sports privileges for a year.
But prosecutors focused on the twins’ testimony that they had preferred Seth Copes to his wife and said he was a “good dad” other than the abuse. When questioning Seth Copes on the stand, Assistant District Attorney Scott Rogillio called him “the parent they loved.”
“They chose to make allegations against you, not the one they hated?” Rogillio asked.
Rogillio said the three girls’ testimony hadn’t wavered significantly since 2013, and the victims had repeatedly come from out of town and out of state for different court dates. He also pointed out the twins haven’t lived at Palmer Home since 2013. He said if all they wanted was to leave Palmer Home — adding one twin had even said she liked living there — then they’ve had five years to call prosecutors and say they wanted to drop charges.
“They would have to hold one heck of a grudge, wouldn’t they?” he said.
Copes testified that, as far as he’d known, he’d had a good relationship with the twins from the time they met in 2006.
“We had issues like any parent would with a teenage child, but for all intents and purposes, it was great,” he said.
He described them as talented athletes, who he drove to and from games and practices.
“They just had a natural ability, an athletic ability, and you just wanted to foster it,” he said.
However, he said there were major discipline infractions and that the twins would become angry with him and his wife.
“They yelled at us,” he said. “(One twin) has thrown things at me.”
He also agreed with Rogillio that the twins didn’t seem to like his wife as much as they liked him.
“They came to me for, quote-unquote, ‘sports and fun,'” he said.
The Copes’ daughter and a therapist for the third accuser who didn’t work at Palmer Home also both testified for the defense Friday.
‘A long time coming’
Prosecutors said they were pleased with the jury’s verdict after the years-long case.
“I feel relieved,” Assistant District Attorney Collen Hudson said about the verdict. “It’s been a long time coming.”
“These are the toughest cases, but we’re just so pleased that the victims never gave up and they didn’t give up on us,” he said.
Rand declined to comment to The Dispatch. Co-counsel Thomas Pavlinic of Maryland, who was reprimanded by the judge during the proceedings and not allowed to question witnesses on the stand thereafter, could not be reached for comment.
Throughout the trial, both sides had argued over evidence to be presented, including rule-breaking by the three accusers which allegedly included sexual impropriety and information presiding judge Jim Kitchens ruled was protected by medical privilege. After the trial, Copes’ wife, Kara Copes, told a Dispatch reporter the defense had wanted to present 26 pieces of evidence and only three were allowed.
Kitchens also expressed concern that if the case were appealed, it would end up before the Mississippi Supreme Court because of the amount of evidence being presented that related to the third accuser, who was not named in the indictment.
“This case is becoming about (her) instead of (the twins),” he said.
Before deliberations, he instructed the jury the third witness’ testimony was presented to demonstrate motive and opportunity by Seth Copes, but that they were not there to determine whether he had committed sexual battery against her instead of the twins.
District Attorney Scott Colom told The Dispatch after the trial that he didn’t know why Seth Copes had not been indicted for abusing the third witness because he hadn’t been at the DA’s Office at the time.
“If I were to give you an answer, it would be pure speculation,” he said.
He added he didn’t know if it would be possible to present a case with the third accuser as a victim to a grand jury and that it may not be worth it to go through another trial since Seth Copes has been convicted.