Island County jury acts quickly in horrific child abuse case

Oak Harbor resident Ryan Stephenson was convicted of raping and assaulting a toddler. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Ryan Stephenson was convicted of raping and assaulting a toddler.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

A jury in Island County Superior Court took just 15 minutes to return a verdict following four days of testimony so horrific and unsettling that the judge offered jurors the opportunity to speak with counselors afterward.

The jurors found Ryan Stephenson, a 27-year-old Oak Harbor man, guilty of first-degree rape with aggravating circumstance and a special allegation and first-degree assault of a child with aggravating circumstances.

Stephenson was on trial for raping his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter, beating her repeatedly, stuffing her into a backpack and kicking her "soccer style." Senior Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme presented evidence that showed Stephenson was extremely abusive toward the little girl because she was a living reminder that his girlfriend had a child with another man.

"Jealousy, resentment and rage. That's what lead to the defendant's savage raping and beating of that little girl," Ohme told the jury during closing arguments, motioning toward a poster-size photo of the toddler and her 5-year-old brother.

The defense attorney, Peter Simpson of Coupeville, didn't present any witnesses and Stephenson chose not to take the stand in his defense. Simpson argued that the prosecution didn't prove the elements of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. He conceded that Stephenson repeatedly beat the girl, but described it as parental punishment that went way too far. He argued that there was no rape and that the beatings didn't amount to first-degree assault.

Injury severe

Much of the testimony presented by Ohme dealt with the severe injury the child sustained from the rape. He called three "renowned medical experts" to the stand to describe the extreme injury and the reconstructive surgery to repair the wound. Over the objections of the defense attorney, he presented the jury with close-up photos of the bloody injury and extensive bruising on the girl's body; a couple of the jurors wiped back tears.

Julia Mitzel, a nurse practitioner who's a board-certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner at Seattle Children's Hospital, testified that she had to collect evidence and take photos after the girl was rushed to the operating room because doctors were worried that the injuries were potentially life threatening. She described the "incredibly numerous" bruises that blackened the girl's buttocks, crotch, lower back and dotted her face. She said the girl's genital injury was "extremely severe" and very rare.

"This is the most serious injury I've ever seen in a child or an adult," she said, adding that she's done sexual assault exams on more than 1,000 patients in her career.

Dr. Katherine Debiec, a pediatric gynecologist at Harborview and a professor at the University of Washington, was on the team of seven physicians who performed the reconstructive surgery. On the stand, she said the child suffered a "fourth-degree perineum laceration" that required surgeons to suture together layers of muscle and tissue. She described the child as "profoundly anemic" from a loss of blood. She said the operation was a success, but only time will tell if the injury will have a long-term effect on the victim's physical functioning.

Rebecca Wiester, who's one of the few pediatricians in the state to be board certified as a child sexual assault and physical abuse physician, examined the girl and scrutinized the case after the surgery. She also testified about the extent of the child's injuries. She said the sexual injury could only have been caused by penetrating force or impalement and it couldn't have happened when the girl was clothed or wearing diapers.

Wiester also testified that Stephenson assaulted the girl with enough force to cause the likelihood of death.

The star witness

The star witness in the case, however, was Detective Tony Slowik with the Oak Police Department. He investigated the allegations and laid out much of the evidence over hours of testimony.

Slowik testified that he and a couple of other detectives started investigating about three hours after the little victim was taken to Whidbey General Hospital on May 27, 2011; the child was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for surgery.

Stephenson had been living at the apartment with his girlfriend and the girl, as well as a 5-year-old boy he and the woman have in common. He was taking care of the children alone that day because the girlfriend had an appointment.

Slowik described how Stephenson's story about what had happened changed with each telling. He initially tried to blame his son, saying that the boy must have caused the injury by putting something inside the toddler.

He later admitted that he punched the girl on the bottom numerous times and stretched her legs apart doing playful stretching exercises; he suggested the beating or stretching could have caused her injuries.

"He said he was pretty sure it was of his doing, he just didn't know how," Slowik said.

At one point, another detective suggested that it would lift a burden from his soul to tell the truth.

"He said something like, I don't have a soul. Trust me," Slowik said.

Stuffed in backpack

According to Slowik's testimony, Stephenson eventually admitted to beating the girl because he was mad that she was eating her breakfast slowly. He said he then stuffed her into a backpack and swung it around before throwing it toward the couch; the backpack missed and fell on the floor. He kicked the backpack "five to seven times, as hard as he could, soccer style," the detective said.

Slowik said Stephenson released the girl, but then beat her again later. Stephenson told the detective that he discovered she had a bloody diaper and called his girlfriend for help.

Slowik also testified that Stephenson admitted to raping the toddler with objects in the past. The detective said Stephenson giggled when he described how he forced an object into the girl in order to keep her awake all night long.

Stephenson suggested that the previous assaults could account for the girl's severe injuries, but he angrily insisted that his actions were not sexually motivated, Slowik testified.

A forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory matched blood found inside the backpack to the girl's DNA profile. The prosecutor charged Stephenson with first-degree assault for kicking her while she was in the backpack.

In an interview before the trial, Ohme explained that he wasn’t legally able to charge Stephenson with the prior rapes because there was no independent corroboration --- such as DNA evidence --- that the crimes occurred, which is known as the “corpus delicti” doctrine. But the judge ruled that the jurors could use Stephenson’s confessions to the rapes as “proof of motive, intent, lack of mistake or accident and lustful disposition.”

During his closing arguments, Ohme brought out the purple backpack to help him describe the assault. He shook the backpack and then threw it across the courtroom to demonstrated the viciousness of the assault, which again prompted some jurors to openly weep.

"Imagine the terror of that little girl in this backpack," he said. "Imagine a grown man kicking a tiny person inside that backpack."

"This was a sadistic, malicious rape and a sadistic, malicious assault of a little girl," he concluded.

Counseling for jurors

The jury immediately found Stephenson guilty of both counts and the aggravating factors, which include the fact that the victim was younger than 15 and particularly vulnerable. Before releasing the jurors, Judge Alan Hancock — who became emotional himself — offered them the opportunity to speak with mental health counselors because of the difficult nature of the trial.

The jurors told Ohme and Slowik afterward that seeing the demonstration with the backpack drove home the reality of the horrendous assault and made their decision easy.

"This was an emotional case," Ohme said after the trial. "It deeply affected everyone involved."

Stephenson will likely be sentenced in June. Since he was convicted of a sex crime, the Department of Corrections must complete a pre-sentence investigation on Stephenson with a sentencing recommendation. In an unusual move, the defense attorney made it clear to the judge that Stephenson will not cooperate with the investigation.

Ohme hasn't decided on his sentence recommendation yet, but he said it will be significant. Stephenson is facing an indeterminate sentence of up to life with a minimum of at least 35 years in prison. That means he'll have to serve the minimum sentence and then a prison review board will decide if he should be released.

The little girl and her brother were removed from their home by Child Protective Services. They are now living with relatives and are thriving, according to the prosecutor's office.

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