By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Still, I could tell that Detective Skelly was excited about the man they had in custody," she says. He explained, in fact, that Faison was a suspect in several assaults. A sample of his blood was being sent off to determine if his DNA matched the semen sample she had provided investigators. First, however, he would be tried for a rape where fingerprint evidence had been found.
By September 1998, Faison had been indicted on three additional counts of sexual assault and one of aggravated assault with bodily injury. Detective Skelly told members of the media that there was the possibility that "three to five more cases" might be linked to Faison once DNA testing was completed.
By the end of the year, he had been convicted and sentenced to 90 years for the 1995 rape of the SMU student. Though the victim could not identify him and there was no DNA evidence presented, a partial fingerprint lifted from the deadbolt latch of the young woman's door and a thumbprint taken from the strip of tape used to disable the locking bar matched his. The jury deliberated only 90 minutes before finding Faison guilty.
And even before Cotroneo's trial date was set, Faison's troubles continued to mount. A woman who had been attacked in the parking lot of her apartment in 1991 saw his photograph in the newspaper and told police he looked like the man who had pulled her from her car, slammed her onto the pavement and attempted to rape her. The assault, she told authorities, had been interrupted by the arrival of another car, and the man had fled to a nearby Toyota.
It was, however, the second trial that offered what then-Assistant District Attorney Lisa Fox called "the jackpot," DNA evidence that experts said had a one-in-300 million chance of belonging to anyone other than Gary Faison.
By the spring of 1999, Gina Cotroneo had a new job and was regaining her positive outlook on life. But nothing could remove the dread she felt as she prepared to take the stand and detail for a group of strangers the assault and degradation she'd been subjected to two years earlier. "On one hand," she recalled as she sipped a cup of Starbucks coffee, "I felt a sense of relief that it was about to finally be over. By the same token, I really had to emotionally prepare myself for what I would have to do.
"I think a lot of my friends expected me to have some big emotional reaction to seeing the man who raped me sitting in the courtroom. Truth is, I didn't."
Not only did she tell her story in graphic detail, but other women Faison was charged with raping took the stand to relive their nightmares. Expert witnesses carefully explained that the DNA evidence linked Faison to Cotroneo's rape. Again he was convicted, this time to a life sentence.
The most dramatic moment in the proceedings came when Cotroneo was allowed to make a victim's statement at the end of the punishment phase of the trial. Even now, she remembers it verbatim:
"When you raped me," she said as she faced Faison, "you took a piece of my soul with you, a piece that I've been grieving for and missing and wandering around without for two years. As I stand here, looking into your eyes, I take it back."
She remembers that he seemed to deflate in front of her. "I told him I could see him shrinking."
As she reflects on the moment, she insists that testifying against Faison was never a "personal" thing, rather just a means to assure that he was denied the power to ever again harm a woman. "I didn't know him; he didn't know me. Do I hate him? No, I don't have time for that."
Nor, she says, did her focus narrow only on the man seated at the defense table. "I was aware that his mother was in the courtroom," she says, "and I felt so badly for her. Seeing her there, imagining what she must be feeling, was heartbreaking."
Many of those who had crowded into state District Judge Faith Johnson's courtroom in support of Faison or testified as character witnesses remain convinced he did not commit the crimes of which he was convicted. "I had visited him in jail shortly after he was arrested," recalls longtime community activist Chester Johnson, "and asked him point-blank if he was guilty. He told me he wasn't. I've known Gary since we were kids, and that kind of crime is not like him in any way."
The Reverend Doyce Wilson is Faison's minister at the Sweet Home Baptist Mission. He and Johnson are members of a Gary Faison support group that writes and visits him regularly. "I never felt that his lawyer really put on a defense," Wilson says. "Gary's told me many times that the Lord knows he's innocent."