Polson man defeats third rape charge in six years
By Caleb M. Soptelean/Valley Journal
POLSON – For the third time since 2011, Vaughn David James has defeated a rape charge.
James, 44, of Polson, won at trial last week when a 9-woman, 3-man jury voted 10-2 in favor of conviction, resulting in a hung jury and a mistrial. Jury trials require a unanimous verdict for a conviction.
Prosecuting attorney Brendan McQuillan said the state may retry the case.
The trial lasted two-plus days and the jury deliberated about six hours before returning a verdict on Wednesday, June 14.
Afterward, three jurors offered mixed opinions.
“The justice system worked here,” a male juror said. “We were lacking in evidence.”
“It was a very difficult case,” a female juror said, noting the subject matter, interpretation of evidence and differing versions of events.
“It seems there was a lot of lying or misrepresentation on both sides,” another female juror said.
In his opening remarks, McQuillan said James entered a woman’s apartment in downtown Polson at 4 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2016 and raped a 54-year-old woman on a couch, grabbed his clothes and rushed out the back door.
Another woman who was asleep in the home at the time of the incident called police later that morning, he said.
McQuillan said the case wasn’t easy.
Defense attorney Caleb Simpson said the county attorney’s office ignored blatant inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s statements.
Simpson said that James stayed at the residence on occasion, but wasn’t allowed to stay there if he was drinking.
Simpson called the alleged victim “unemployed, homeless and destitute” and said she had showed up unannounced at the residence on Sept. 15.
The alleged victim testified that she woke up to find James on top of her. “I just prayed for a minute,” she said, crying. The woman said James raped her.
The 5 feet, 2 inch 185-pound woman said James, who is listed at 5 feet, 9 inches and 195 pounds in a court document, held her down and put his hand over her mouth.
“I went into shock and there’s a lot of things I can’t remember,” she said, responding to questions from defense attorney Amanda Marvin. The alleged victim testified that James had been ordered to leave the residence on the evening of Sept. 16 by the tenant.
Marvin later said that the alleged victim had changed her story about how many times James had been at the residence the evening of Sept. 16, ranging from one to four times.
Video footage from the body camera of then-Polson Police Det. Michelle Scott-Lee was played for jurors, who also heard from an emergency room nurse, doctor, forensic scientist and a forensic DNA analyst that identified James’ DNA from swabs taken from the alleged victim.
After the state rested, Marvin moved for acquittal of the aggravated burglary charge, but Judge Kim Christopher denied that motion, saying that the jury would decide. McQuillan noted that the jury was required to reach a conviction on the rape charge in order to convict James of burglary.
In closing arguments, Marvin said the alleged victim was in jail one day, then was getting called “honey” by police the next day after alleging that James raped her. She told five different versions of the story, Marvin said.
“Do not decide this case based on tears,” Marvin said. “Decide based on what is reliable.”
Marvin also said Scott-Lee never went back to the residence to investigate signs of forced entry by James, and she didn’t ask the occupant if James had a key to the apartment.
Marvin said the alleged victim let James into the home, and noted that James testified that the situation, which he said involved sex, was awkward for both of them.
Third time not the charm for prosecutors
Deputy county attorney James Lapotka, who prosecuted a 2011 rape case against James, noted that a Nov. 7, 2011 trial resulted in a hung jury by a vote of 11-1. The alleged victim in that case later committed suicide, Lapotka said, adding the loss of the witness resulted in the case not being retried.
James was found not guilty by a jury in a 2011 Missoula County rape trial, Lapotka said, noting the woman in that case was pregnant when the incident took place, May 11, 2011, the day James was released from state prison.
All three cases were similar in that James allegedly broke into a home and raped a woman during the night while she was asleep, Lapotka said.
James is also facing a Sept. 11 trial for allegedly failing to register as a violent offender, a status he obtained after being convicted of robbery in 1991 after he robbed Polson Bay Grocery and threatened to kill a store clerk while he and an accomplice displayed a knife and gun, a court document states. He was also convicted of three counts of theft, two counts of burglary, one count of conspiracy and one count of misdemeanor theft related to the 1991 case.
In arguing against a motion for reduced bond in the 2011 Lake County rape case, Lapotka said James had a record of several home invasion-style burglaries.
James, who had a 2009 criminal endangerment conviction for driving at speeds of up to 100 mph on Montana 35 overturned by the state Supreme Court, was also convicted of misdemeanor partner family member assault in November 2008.
He has served all of his time on previous convictions, but will be held on a $250,000 bond if the county attorney’s office proceeds with another trial. His bond on the failure to register as a violent offender charge is $1,000.