By Chris Cotelesse
Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon in the case of an Ashland couple accused of imprisoning and abusing a cognitively-impaired woman.
In closing arguments, during the 13th day of the federal trial of Jessica L. Hunt and Jordie L. Callahan in Ohio’s Northern District Federal Court in Youngstown Thursday, the prosecutor painted the defendants as predators who lured a vulnerable woman and her young daughter into their home to exploit and abuse the alleged victim, known only as S.E.
The Ashland couple is accused of imprisoning and abusing the cognitively-impaired woman, in order to steal her government assistance money. The two are charged with conspiracy, forced labor, theft of government benefits, acquiring a controlled substance by deception and witness tampering. If convicted, Hunt and Callahan could face life imprisonment if the jury considers the kidnapping sentence enhancement under the forced labor charge.
Prosecutor Chelsea Rice quoted the jury instructions when she reminded the jury that for the purposes of the trial, reasonable doubt “is based on common sense and your own experiences.”
She asked the jury to consider everything that had been presented over nearly three weeks when weighing Hunt’s testimony that she only wanted to help S.E.
Emergency room records show that S.E. had lost about 30 pounds during the time she lived with Hunt and Callahan at 509 W. Main St. in Ashland. And several witnesses testified that S.E. always appeared dirty and unkempt.
“Ask yourself if that person is someone who Jessica Hunt was looking out for,” Rice said. “Does it make sense?”
Rice said the defendants “lured” S.E. into “believing they were her friends” so they could take advantage of her financial assistance and her labor, adding that S.E. was vulnerable because she didn’t have anywhere else to live.
“She was the perfect victim for these defendants … socially isolated, slow,” Rice said.
Edward Bryan, Hunt’s lead defense attorney, challenged the picture painted by federal prosecutors and their witnesses.
“It’s always convenient for the government to say ‘she’s feeble-minded,’” Bryan said. “She navigated the social benefits system … She read extensively.”
He said Hunt and Callahan weren’t captors but roommates whom S.E. slandered to gain sympathy after she was arrested for shoplifting while on probation. He said the trial was “an unreliable, false narrative … created by investigators who wanted to believe the worst about (Hunt and Callahan).”
He asked the jury to view the facts of the case without bias.
“When you objectively evaluate the evidence in this case … that will be the first time … that was done,” he said.
Callahan’s attorney Donald Butler said investigators manipulated allegations out of S.E., the most “appalling” of which were those of sexual abuse, citing police interviews with S.E. in which she denied any sexual activity between herself and Callahan.
“She (S.E.) said ‘no, they (she and Callahan) did not have sex,’” Butler said. “Then Officer (Kim) Mager (Ashland Police Department) says it was because of (S.E.)’s body language that made her look into it further.”
Ultimately, Hunt’s and Callahan’s fates were left in the hands of the jury which began deliberation around 2:30 p.m.
Lead Prosecutor Tom Getz described the trial as “a tale of two (S.E.)s.”
“There’s the (S.E.) that existed before she met these folks (Hunt and Callahan) and moved into this house. Then there’s the (S.E.) she was turned into,” he said.
He told the jury that they would have to decide which S.E. presented in court was the most credible.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).