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He Was Falsely Convicted Of Rape. A DA Claimed Exonerating DNA Evidence Violated ‘Rape Shield’ Laws. Now He’s Getting A New Trial.

Ronald Jacobsen has spent more than half his life behind bars for the rape and kidnap of a woman in 1990. On January 25, 2019, the Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia granted him a new trial.
In 2017, it was discovered that the DNA discovered in the victim’s rape kit could not have come from Jacobson, and a new trial was demanded. The District Attorney, however, opposed a new trial, claiming the DNA could have belonged to someone else the victim was sexually active with prior to the kidnapping. Allowing the DNA evidence into court, the DA said, would violate the Rape Shield Act, as the law prohibits evidence relating to a victim’s sexual history.
On January 6, 1990, a 21-year-old woman was working her shift at a Golden Pantry convenience store in Newton County, Georgia. Around 4 a.m., a man entered the store and bought a pack of Marlboro lights, the woman said in court documentsreviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). When she handed him the change, he went behind the counter and hit her in the head.
What followed was a terrifying ride down I-20 in the man’s pickup truck. He forced her to perform oral sex on him while he drove, and stopped at several exits to repeatedly rape and sodomize her. The woman told police he also attacked her with his fists and a flashlight and threatened to kill her.
It was only when the man pulled over after the truck ran out of gas that the woman was able to escape. Her attacker stopped in an I-20 emergency lane when another car pulled up. The man in the car asked if they needed help. The woman’s attacker got into that car, which drove away. The woman then climbed over a fence and found a house. She banged on the windows until someone let her in to call police.
The woman initially told police she didn’t know who her attacker was, and in a recorded interview just hours after the ordeal, she told police she’d asked her abductor: “What did I do to you? I don’t even know you.”
A behavioral scientist told police she was just traumatized and would later identify her attacker. Upon further questioning, the woman named Jacobsen, who was 20 at the time. The two had recently ended a one-month relationship, so police and prosecutors had little reason to doubt her ability to recognize the man.
At trial, according to AJC, she said she initially said she didn’t know the man because she was afraid Jacobsen would kill her, as he said during the attack. Bob Knight, a 70-year-old man who was in the convenience store just before the attack, backed up her story by saying he had asked if the woman knew the man who had walked into the store at that time, and she said he was a former boyfriend. Knight then identified Jacobsen — but only after police showed him a photo of the suspect and no one else.
Jacobsen had another girlfriend who was pregnant with his child when he ended things with the victim, and said at trial that he was 150 miles away in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with the other girlfriend at the time of the attack. Witnesses confirmed that he was in Chattanooga that night, but prosecutors suggested his alibi meant discounting what the victim and witnesses for the prosecution said, and believing that Jacobsen was the only person telling the truth.
When the Innocence Project took up Jacobsen’s case, attorney Vanessa Potkin discovered the DNA evidence that exonerated the accused, who by then had spent 27 years in jail. When she asked for a new trial, District Attorney Layla Zon opposed, claiming the DNA evidence didn’t prove that Jacobsen was innocent.
Zon argued that since the DNA could have come from a different, consensual, sexual encounter, it would be akin to bringing up the victim’s sexual history, which is prohibited by Georgia’s Rape Shield Act. Potkin responded by saying that is not what she was arguing on behalf of Jacobsen.
“We’re not saying the sperm comes from a prior boyfriend,” Potkin said, according to AJC. “We’re saying the sperm comes from the rapist.”
Andrew Fleischman, an Atlanta attorney, tweeted Saturday morning that Zon’s opposition to the DNA evidence was “so awful” that a judge “subtweeted it in a separate opinion.”
While we are satisfied that the evidence sought in this case falls behind the wall erected by the Rape Shield Statute, we note potentially serious concerns regarding the notion that the act is so broad as to exclude all evidence “relating to” a victim’s past sexual behavior with the sole exception being evidence related to activity which included the defendant. In so doing, we contemplate a scenario where the prosecution asserts the Rape Shield Statute to exclude evidence of the DNA results in a fact pattern similar to that in this case (i.d., where the DNA results conclusively refuse a claim of the defendant’s paternity) where the evidence would be highly probative of innocence, directly related to the honesty of a witness, yet clearly related to the past sexual behavior of the victim. The possibility of this scenario unfolding in a criminal case raises myriad questions related to the Confrontation Clause and Due Process protections of our constitutions. But this is not the case before us.
Fleischman also pointed to a filing Zon wrote about changing her mind on the Rape Shield Statute after she received criticism from the Supreme Court of Georgia in a different case.
Zon at that time argued that the Rape Shield Act was being used “against the admissibility of relevant evidence” that damaged a defendant at trial. One justice asked Zon at the time if she could “make exceptions whenever you want” when using the Rape Shield Act. Zon responded by acknowledging that her argument was “not very persuasive.”
Fleischman also tweeted that this was “some good news for a man falsely convicted,” but added that Georgia provides no “financial resources for people who have been wrongfully convicted,” meaning Jacobsen, should he be found not guilty in a new trial, “will begin his life from scratch.”

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