CVP EXCLUSIVE: A defense attorney for Mahwah youth pastor Curtis Franklin today called his trial on charges of having sex with an underage congregant “a garden-variety ‘he-said / she-said’ case.”
However, an assistant Bergen County prosecutor outlined a long-term relationship “conducted in secret” in several places over four years, beginning when the girl was 12.
Franklin, whose first prosecution in the same case ended in a mistrial, is being re-tried. He already is serving an eight-year prison sentence at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel for having sex with the woman’s sister, who is also underage. He faces lifetime parole as a registered Megan’s Law offender if he eventually is released from state custody.
During opening arguments in Hackensack this morning, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Kenneth Ralph painted a seedy picture of Franklin, who he said was 17 years older than his alleged victim when he began taking her to parking lots behind warehouses for sex in his tow truck.
“It is a crime because of her age,” Ralph explained. “The state does not have to prove she fought back or resisted.
“She did not think she was assaulted or abused. She thought she was in a relationship at 12, 13, 14, 15 – all ages the state says she was too young to [give] consent.”
Defense attorney Benjamin Morton, in turn, asked jurors to “use your common sense” and to consider the time gap since their first alleged sexual encounter 14 years ago.
“The evidence is going to establish this is a garden-variety, he-said she-said case. It’s not complicated like the prosecution says,” Morton told the jury. “Use your everyday common sense.”
A father of two, Franklin lived just down the street from Mahwah Full Gospel Church, where he was a minister. The girls’ family lived a block away.
The girls’ father was close to the church pastor — Franklin’s father-in-law, Jack Walker — whom he considered a father figure, Ralph told jurors. Their mother was an accountant at the church, where both families attended services three to four a week, he said.
The Walker family, Franklin and his wife and the girls’ family shared holidays, meals and vacations, he added.
According to Ralph, Franklin and the girl had sex two to three times per month for five years.
When she turned 16, she asked him to keep a promise that they be seen publicly, Ralph said, adding that Franklin declined.
Morton said the allegations of sexual activity defy common sense, that surely within 120 to 180 instances of having sex, the girl would have told someone.
“No Twitter, no diaries, no best friend? Her mother, her father? All this sex, 120, 180 times – not one word,” he told jurors.
“Where is the evidence?” Morton asked. “She went to the police in 2009. They prepped her for two and a half hours, and then she gave a 39-minute statement to police.
“There was no investigation. They said “Let’s go arrest Mr. Franklin.’ From then to today, there was never an investigation,” he said. “Four years later what they have is a young child, infatuated, and the infatuation was never returned.”
Franklin’s previous trial in this case ended in a mistrial in 2011 after a juror researched its history online and shared the findings with fellow jurors through printouts.
Attending today’s proceedings in support of Franklin were his wife, Laura; his oldest daughter; his father, Pastor Jack Walker, and the elder Walker’s wife.
Underlying the trial are two pieces of information that jurors may not hear in court: Franklin’s previous conviction and the contention that the girl decided to pursue charges after learning that he’d had sex with her sister.
She’d been living in the South and drove back to Mahwah after learning of the abuse from her mother and sister during a phone conversation, Morton said.
Another factor that may or may not be admitted during trial is that the girls’ mother was, at one time, accused of embezzling money from the church.
Morton told Superior Court Judge Edward Jerejian last week that he doesn’t intend to use that as part of his defense but could change his mind.
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