A Texas appellate court headquartered in Texarkana affirmed this week the convictions and life sentences a Bowie County jury assessed last year in a human trafficking case.
The court, however, did rule that instead of serving the five terms consecutively as ordered by the judge at the trial level, Kenneth Dewayne Nelson, 64, will serve all five terms at the same time. The 6th District Court of Appeals ruled that, unlike some other sexual offenses involving children, trafficking of persons is not an offense for which cumulative sentences are an option under Texas law.
The state's briefings in the case described the argument as "absurd" because the criminal conduct underlying the trafficking charges—sexual assault of five teen girls—is a listed offense for which sentences can run consecutively. The state has the option of asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to weigh in on the case.
The higher court rejected an argument by Nelson that he is entitled to a new trial. At trial, Nelson initially pleaded guilty and expressed intent to have a jury decide his punishment only. But after a jury had been selected and informed of Nelson's guilty pleas, Nelson changed his mind and asked to withdraw his pleas of guilty.
At trial, Nelson's defense lawyer argued unsuccessfully that the jury's knowledge of Nelson's initial pleas of guilty left them tainted and unable to be impartial when considering whether he actually committed the offenses with which he was charged. The higher court ruled that Nelson's dilemma was of his own making and that he could not nullify a jury or create reversible error by pleading guilty and waiting until after jury selection to withdraw the plea. Also, if a defendant were allowed to manipulate the trial process in such a way, it could lead other defendants to follow suit and create a quagmire in trial dockets across the state.
Nelson met one of the five girls through her mother and the other four victims through one another. Prosecutors intimated at trial that other victims, including one Nelson shared with another defendant, were too frightened to testify. Nelson traded drugs for sex with the girls 13, 14, 15 and 16 years of age.
Nelson came to the attention of law enforcement during a human trafficking investigation that began with John Littleton, a defendant who allegedly began abusing at least one girl when she was 11.
Littleton died before his case could be brought to trial. At Nelson's trial and at the trial of Littleton's longtime friend and roommate Charles Garton, investigators with the Texas Department of Public Safety testified that they suspect Littleton used a drug intended for animal husbandry to end his own life.
Littleton's body was discovered by a DPS investigator who entered his home to arrest him for violating conditions of his bond.
During a search of Littleton's home on Meadow Drive in New Boston, Texas, investigators discovered a video tape labeled with a girl's name. The tape was used to record three separate instances of Littleton sexually assaulting an obviously underage girl.
In one of the recordings, a news report announcing that Lisa Marie Presley filed for divorce in her marriage to Michael Jackson was playing on a television in the background. Investigators determined the announcement was made in January 1996. They also knew the identity of the girl assaulted in the recordings, who was 14 in January 1996.
The victim told investigators that an adult female relative, who knew Littleton because of her activities as a prostitute, introduced her to Littleton when she was 11. That relative, Della Lou Griffin, allegedly accepted money from Littleton for sex with the girl. Littleton and Griffin allegedly plied the girl with alcohol and drugs during the sexual abuse, which occurred over a period of years.
Della Lou Griffin, 52, has been arrested by DPS for sexual assault of a child but the case has not yet been presented to a grand jury. A grand jury could decline to charge Griffin or indict her on other charges related to the alleged sexual abuse of a child.
Griffin allegedly appeared in at least one of the recordings of Littleton sexually abusing her relative, and Griffin allegedly operated the camera equipment while the assaults were being filmed.
Bowie County court records show Griffin has a prior conviction for prostitution.
Griffin failed to appear for a court hearing in the case Monday afternoon and a warrant was issued for her arrest by 202nd District Judge John Tidwell. She was free on a $25,000 commercial bond.
Charles Edward Garton, 40, lived with Littleton in his Meadow Drive home for 13 years, according to testimony at Garton's trial earlier this year.
Garton received two 80-year sentences from a jury for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. The terms were ordered to run consecutively for a total 160-year term.
The girl Garton was found guilty of sexually abusing is the daughter of the woman who was recorded at age 14 being sexually abused by Littleton in the tape discovered by DPS investigators, according to trial testimony.
Garton's victim came to live with Littleton and Garton after her grandparents became too ill to care for her and her sister.
At trial, Garton's victim testified that the house was filthy and that the space was fouled with the presence and stench of human and animal waste. The victim testified that she and her sister had no place else to go and feared life in the foster care system.
Should Garton ever be released from prison, he will be required to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.