A Bulloch County Superior Court jury on Sept. 15 found Terrence Antoine Webster not-guilty of all three charges – aggravated sexual battery, child molestation and cruelty to children – that had been brought against him in a January 2022 indictment, and also of a lesser charging option added during the 3 1/2-day trial.
A warrant obtained by Bulloch County Sheriff’s Investigator Reid Odom for Webster’s arrest on Oct. 22, 2021, accused him of having touched a female child sexually with his hand, including penetration with a finger. The child was identified in court as his stepdaughter, age 10 at the time, and the incident was alleged, in the warrant and in the grand jury indictment that followed, to have occurred between March 22 and March 25, 2021.
If Webster, now 34, of a Statesboro address, had been convicted of aggravated sexual battery, he would have faced a life sentence with at least 25 years to serve in prison. A conviction for child molestation, his defense attorney said, could also have meant a life sentence. First-degree cruelty to children carries a five- to 20-year sentencing range.
His defense attorney, Louise Dietzen of Dietzen Law on St. Simons Island, praised the trial jury that found Webster not guilty of all charges. After jury selection the previous day, Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson convened the trial the morning of Sept. 12. Presentation of evidence and testimony and closing arguments by both sides lasted through Thursday morning, Sept. 14, and the jury reportedly went into deliberation around 2:30 p.m., for about three hours that afternoon, reportedly resuming for less than one hour the next morning.
“I was very, very pleased with my jury. They’re one of the smartest juries I’ve ever had,” Dietzen said in a phone interview. “This was only my second child molestation case and I reached out to my peers in Atlanta, and they all recommended that for both sentences that carry life … they advised me to include in the jury charge conference a lesser included step of sexual battery.”
(Non-aggravated) sexual battery carries a sentence of one to five years. At the defense’s request, Thompson agreed to add it as a lesser included option to both aggravated sexual battery and child molestation in his instructions to the jury. It was shown that way on the jury’s verdict form, as a third checkable option after the choices “not guilty” or “guilty” to the original charges. But the jury checked “not guilty” to all three charges.
Dietzen said she believes Webster was completely innocent of the charges but was surprised that the jurors did not choose the lesser included charge.
“At the end of the trial I was very concerned that they were going to just hang on to the lesser included offense because that’s what they (juries) typically do in order to reach a unanimous verdict; they compromise,” she said. “And they did not compromise. They found enough reasonable doubt on all counts to exonerate him on everything. So that was what was most surprising for me. That was kind of a double win for me.”
The child’s mother – Webster’s estranged wife – testified during the trial. But Dietzen, in the phone interview since the trial, characterized the mother as having been on-again and off-again with her reports to law enforcement, calling the police on Webster when she was angry but then returning to him before getting angry and calling the police again.
“They had no credible evidence, lack of evidence, inconsistent evidence,” Dietzen said.
But the child victim, now 13, also testified during the trial, and cried while doing so, according to both Dietzen and Barclay Black, chief assistant district attorney for the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, who prosecuted the case. The Statesboro Herald did not have a reporter at this trial but has since interviewed the attorneys on both sides.
Black characterized the child’s testimony as “strong.”
“The child started crying on the stand when she was telling the story, and there were several members of the jury who were crying right there with her,” he said.
Dietzen noted that Odom was the only law enforcement witness who testified in court.
A nurse who had examined the child also testified, but reported that the examination was inconclusive.
“What the nurse said was that although she didn’t find physical evidence, that would be normal and consistent to him doing what he was alleged to have done and it wasn’t conclusive that she wasn’t molested and it should be further investigated,” Black said. “That’s what her report was.”
The mother testified that she had confronted Webster with what he was alleged to have done and that she had received Snapchat messages from him in response. She identified the messages during her testimony.
The Snapchat messages that were shown to the jury on screen essentially “said I did it and please forgive me,” said Black. He acknowledged that these were not the exact words.
“It was a tough blow to take for this 13-year-old little girl when they didn’t believe her when she said, ‘My father molested me,’ but we respect the jury and we respect the process,” Black said.
Neither side called on any expert witnesses other than the nurse during the trial. The prosecution had a forensic interviewer who had interviewed the child but did not call this witness to the stand. Black said this was because the child was able to testify directly.
Jailed for 583 days
Denied bond at first, Webster was jailed for 583 days awaiting trial before Thompson granted him release June 2 on bond set at $25,000 and requiring him to wear an ankle monitor while staying at a Savannah residence and within 30 miles of it. Before that the trial had been slated for July, but Dietzen had a detached retina, and when she told the judge she could not prepare for trial while in that condition, he agreed and set the conditional bond so Webster would not have to remain in jail waiting for his attorney’s eye to heal, she said.
“I am told, it’s all hearsay, but I am told that Statesboro is known for not giving bond, so the fact that he was held for 583 days without a bond is most concerning,” she said.
Another aspect of the process Dietzen expressed concerns about was that the jury was not informed of the sentences the various charges carried. However, this is standard in criminal jury trials in Georgia, where jurors are instructed to consider guilt or innocence based on the relation of the facts to the definition of crimes, but not the punishment for those crimes. Capital punishment cases are an exception.
“I just think it’s extremely unfair that the jury has no idea about sentencing,” she said. “I mean, this jury thought that he was looking at two years, and he was looking at life. … I plan to get involved with the Legislature because there’s a huge statewide and federal movement in this regard.”Anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse or has knowledge of any such incident is advised to contact The Teal House, Statesboro Regional Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center, located at 209 S. College St., Statesboro, GA 30458. The phone number is (912) 489-6060, and the website is www.srsac.org. The 24-Hour Crisis Line is (866) 489-2225