LIBERTY, Texas (AP) — The first trials for some of more than a dozen men accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl could take place in March, a prosecutor said Thursday.
The case has divided and horrified the southeast Texas town of Cleveland, where authorities say the assaults occurred.
Twelve of the 14 men charged in the case appeared in state court Thursday morning for status hearings. Another currently in jail was represented by an attorney, and a hearing for the other defendant was set for later in the day.
State District Judge Mark Morefield said last month he wanted to set trial dates at Thursday's hearing. But Morefield instead reset their cases for status updates on Feb. 6 after many of the defense attorneys asked for delays.
"The last and final" delay, Morefield told the attorney for one of the defendants, Cedric Scott, 27.
Another defendant, Marcus Porchia, 27, had asked for a delay to do DNA testing in an unrelated case in which he is charged with sexually assaulting another girl.
Prosecutor Joe Warren said he believes the first trials in the case are likely to begin in March. During the court hearing, Warren told Morefield he was ready to go to trial. Warren could not go into specific details about the cases because of a gag order.
One of the defendants was to appear in court later Thursday while another has previously pleaded guilty. All but two of the men are free on bond. Six juvenile boys were also charged in the case, with four of them having pleaded guilty.
Authorities say the girl was assaulted on at least five occasions between mid-September and early December 2010 in Cleveland, about 45 miles northeast of Houston. The investigation began that December, after one of the girl's friends told a teacher he had seen a lurid cellphone video that showed the girl being raped in an abandoned trailer.
The suspects range in age from a middle-school student to 27-year-olds and include two star athletes at the local high school and adults with criminal records.
Most of the men face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, while four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child.
The case shined an unflattering spotlight on Cleveland after some in the town of about 9,000 residents suggested the girl was culpable in part for what happened, claiming she wore makeup and looked older. Some also accused her parents, immigrants from Mexico, of not watching her more closely.
But those suggestions were sharply criticized by many Cleveland residents, along with community and religious groups outside the city.
Also complicating the case was a belief by many in the predominantly black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are black, and the girl is Hispanic.
The girl, now 12, remains in foster care while her parents, who have health problems and moved out of Cleveland after receiving threatening phone calls, work with authorities to get her back.