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New trial ordered for man convicted in divisive rape cases

TOPEKA, Kan. — A man whose conviction in two rape cases divided his small northeast Kansas town must have a new trial because of errors by the prosecutor and court in the original trial, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

Jacob Ewing, 24, of Holton was sentenced to more than 27 years in prison after his June 2017 conviction for raping and sodomizing one woman in 2016 and raping and committing two counts of aggravated criminal sodomy against another woman in 2014.

Ewing argued in his appeal that special prosecutor Jacqie Spradling misstated evidence in her closing arguments that inflamed the “passions of the jury.” The appeal also argued the court made other errors in allowing certain evidence in his trial, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported .

“The cumulative effect of the errors committed by the district court and the prosecutor denied Ewing his constitutional right to a fair trial,” the appeals court ruled.

Trevor Wohlford, one of Ewing’s attorneys, declined to comment on the ruling. The Kansas Attorney General’s office also declined to comment.

The errors cited in the appeal included Spradling suggesting that Ewing enjoyed abusing vulnerable victims and implying that one of the women was in that category, a misstatement about what DNA evidence shown at trial proved, and comments about Ewing’s use of pornography, which the appeals court said should not have been admitted into evidence.

“Given the conflicting nature of the evidence admitted at trial, it is reasonable to believe that the jury took to heart the prosecutor’s comments during closing arguments that purported to represent the evidence, even when those statements did so inaccurately,” the court wrote.

The state had argued in its response to the appeal that the prejudicial cumulative errors can’t exist where “the evidence is overwhelming against the defendant.” The appeals court ruled that it didn’t find the evidence “overwhelming.”

“The burden is on the State to show that the cumulative error committed in this case was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The State has failed to meet this burden,” the court wrote. “We hasten to point out that our finding is in no way intended to be a comment on the credibility of the alleged victims in this case.”

The allegations against Ewing, a former state football champion and member of a well-known family, divided Holton , a town of 3,300 residents about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Topeka. His supporters posted signs in their yards and wore supportive T-shirts to court. Advocates for the women formed a support group and organized volunteers to sit in the courtroom during proceedings.

Ewing was also found not guilty in April 2017 of charges that he raped and sodomized an underage girl. Following a plea deal in a separate case, he was given another 7½ years in prison for the attempted rape of a woman in January 2014 and a charge of child exploitation related to images of an underage girl.

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