Sects and Lies

Did the isolated, unhappy life of an Arlington family of Jehovah's Witnesses breed false charges of sexual abuse? Absolutely, says a family member who never got a chance to tell her side of the story.

His looks could not have helped.

That's the first thing you think as you watch Edward Lee Stevenson lower his large, lumpy frame onto a visiting-room stool. His face appears narrow and squirrel-like, compressed as it is by goggle-size bifocals and limp, gray-black hair. His teeth, noticeably misaligned and punctuated by a scattering of gold crowns, are arranged into a pronounced overbite, which slurs his diction ever so slightly. His breath has the unpleasant scent of problem gums, or maybe tooth decay.

Stevenson's oldest daughter, who once thought the idea of his being imprisoned too far-fetched to consider, believes his appearance--the teeth, the glasses, the eccentric manner--helped put him where he is. "He's a weird, ugly guy," she says. "If he looked like Robert Redford, nobody would have believed these things against him."

And even in prison, there are few offenses greater than being convicted of "these things."

"Nobody in here admits they're a sex offender," Stevenson says from the prison visiting room in his slightly hurried way. "There's probably a lot here, but everybody makes up stories. They're drunk drivers or drug dealers. They'll say they were caught with an illegal gun." On his days out on the "field force," hoeing, planting, harvesting, or plucking weeds from cracks in a nearby airstrip, he mainly hopes nobody will ask. "People in here aren't violent," he says. "They're scared."

Stevenson's words, his story of being falsely accused of unforgivable crimes, would be easier to follow if Lupe Miranda, the guard just outside the steel-plate door, would stop shaking his keys. Tink...tink...tink... Like a watch ticking away the man's sentence, the sound pings down the linoleum floors of this minimum-security compound in Cuero, Texas, which for the next 16 years could be Stevenson's home. Tink...tink...tink...

Located on the edge of a small county seat--a collection of turn-of-the-century storefronts and supply stores southeast of San Antonio--the prison has surroundings that are almost picturesque. Brahma cattle, big-humped and beige, graze in an adjacent field. Stands of oaks and pecans hang across the farm-to-market road. For Stevenson, life inside the fences and metal-sided buildings is almost pleasant compared with his most unhappy home, he says. He reads his science-fiction novels and his Travis McGee mysteries in his two-man cell. No nonstop domestic strife. No waiting for the multiples in his wife's multiple personality to, as he puts it, "clash."

Two years ago, as Stevenson complained in vain that he was the victim of a mentally unstable and vindictive ex-wife, a Tarrant County jury heard three family members--his ex-wife, a daughter, and a son--accuse the 56-year-old Vietnam vet of fondling his 16-year-old daughter and routinely masturbating in front of her in their Arlington home. Amending her story later, the daughter said he raped her too.

Stevenson, who could not afford a lawyer and foolishly chose to represent himself, let prosecutor Lisa Callaghan, a veteran of the Crimes Against Children Unit, pick the jury. He called no witnesses in the guilt-innocence portion of the trial. And as jurors now relate, he never could make a clear point as he attempted to cross-examine his family, those accusing him of the crime.

"The prosecution lined up witnesses who testified to the facts. He did nothing, absolutely nothing, to discredit those facts," recalls juror Douglas Free.

The results for Stevenson were disastrous.

Instead of casting doubt on a case built on delayed outcries, recovered memories, and a complete lack of physical evidence, he landed an 18-year sentence and a trial record almost entirely devoid of legal objections on which to base future appeals.

Too bad, one could say. He made his own dumb mistakes. "The jury heard the witnesses, saw the witnesses," says Callaghan, who maintains she brought a solid case. "They saw stuff [in the way the witnesses gave their accounts] you can't see now...There is a quality when people are telling the truth you can see and hear."

Stevenson's story would have ended with that had three people not come forward in recent months insisting his case deserves another look. They are his oldest daughter, Sheila Lott, who is estranged from the entire family but has now given a detailed affidavit about their odd, unhappy life; the defendant's mother, Ima Jean Ely, who is paying for a new legal challenge; and Fort Worth defense attorney Ward Casey, who filed a legal action last summer seeking to gain Stevenson a new trial.

They say false charges could easily have emerged from the Stevenson household, which was disturbed in a variety of ways. As members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the family was unusually insulated from the outside world, says Sheila Lott. The kids didn't go to school or play with neighbors or do anything to expose them to much beyond their mother's enormous influence. Lott says her siblings, particularly the youngest two, were dominated by Shirley Stevenson, a woman who claimed to have multiple-personality disorder and various undiagnosed diseases, and did strange, neurotic things such as insist she was pregnant when it was obvious she was not.

When police and prosecutors are asked to investigate sex-related charges made against a backdrop of divorce and disputes over child support, as was the case here, one would expect prosecutors to exhibit considerable skepticism about what is being alleged. In this instance, says Casey, they ignored some clear, contradictory evidence and chose instead to rely on the word of family witnesses who were unusually close, one of whom had a big ax to grind.

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