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End of innocence 

An 8-year-old alleges rape. A 15-year-old faces 25 years. Could two children’s lives be ruined by a flawed system?

There's no room to dispute that in 2007, something terrible happened to the young girl who lives at the end of a quiet street off Jonesboro Road.

It was mid-September. A new school year was in its infancy and summer was passing away, reluctantly loosening its stranglehold on the scorching-hot streets of South Atlanta. The girl – then just 8 years old – should have had her mind occupied with kid stuff. Instead, and against her will, she was learning what it means to be an object of sexual desire.

According to police-conducted interviews, the girl told her cousins, ages 8 and 11, that a 15-year-old neighbor who occasionally baby-sat for the family had put his "thing" in her. Rather than tell their grandmother, the little boys decided they'd hatch a plot to catch the baby sitter themselves. On Sept. 14, 2007, or so they later told police, one hid in a closet and the other under a bed. They instructed their female counterpart to lie facedown on the bed, live bait to lure her alleged transgressor.

The children would later say their plan worked.

By their telling, the baby sitter came into the room and lifted his leg in an attempt to get on top of the little girl. Before he could do anything besides "touch her butt," the boys burst out of their respective hiding places and dragged him off of her. Police were called the following day. Eight days later, the 15-year-old neighbor was arrested on charges of aggravated child molestation, statutory rape and sexual battery, and was booked into juvenile detention.

Investigators with the Atlanta Police Department's Child Exploitation Unit treated it as an open-and-shut case. A little girl claimed she'd been raped, two children in the household attested to what they believed was an attempted assault, and a subsequent physical examination of the little girl revealed evidence of sexual abuse. And she hadn't wavered in her identification of a suspect: Her teenage baby sitter, Jason Pratt.

But many in the community where Pratt lived say they have reason to doubt that he's responsible for the crimes perpetrated against their young neighbor. They've argued that the APD – in its apparent haste to close the case – ignored an important fact.

At the time of the little girl's alleged rape, and for several years prior to that outcry, her grandmother's boyfriend, Michael Grissom, was living with the family. The problem: Grissom is a registered sex offender. Documents filed by Pratt's attorney note that Grissom was convicted several years earlier of molesting another family member, his girlfriend's then-12-year-old niece.

It's also questionable whether his presence in the household was legal. An address verification performed by the Fulton County Sheriff's Department in 2007 indicated that the residence was closer than 1,000 feet (the distance dictated by Georgia's sex offender statute) from a nearby park. According to neighbors, Grissom moved out of the house just days after word of the abuse broke, and within weeks, he'd re-registered at a new address not far from there.

District Attorney Paul Howard says his office hasn't detected any inappropriate contact Grissom might have had with the victim and that his office's investigation into the case hasn't revealed any reason why Grissom should be treated as a suspect. "There is no evidence that [Grissom] had any involvement with this little girl," Howard said in an interview with CL. "We investigated him being at an improper address, but there's no indication that he's involved in this case."

That's not good enough for residents of South Atlanta, many of whom know and love Pratt, a boy they describe as "soft-spoken," "honest" and "gentle." Also troubling to members of the community is the fact that Howard is trying Pratt in adult court, despite the fact that he was 15 years old at the time of the alleged incident and has no juvenile criminal record of which to speak.

If convicted as an "adult," Pratt faces a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.

Carrie Amestoy describes South Atlanta as an "old-school" black neighborhood. Its residents aren't segregated by choice, necessarily, but by economics. As far as she knows, she's the only white woman in the neighborhood, and certainly one of few residents with the means to renovate an early-20th century home's interior to resemble a modern art gallery. She bought her house in 2005, and instantly had a friend in a young neighbor.

"I fell in love with the child who lived across the street when he was 12 years old," Amestoy says of Pratt, whose family's modest home sits diagonal to her own. "He's basically part of my family."

Pratt was a regular in Amestoy's house. His mother, Cynthia Pratt, was raising two other children, her eldest child Nikki and Jason's twin brother Joshua. By Cynthia's own admission, when she wasn't at work, she was usually at church. As a result, Jason often ate meals with Amestoy and her roommates, he regularly watched TV and used the computer at her house (he had access to neither in his own home), and occasionally he spent the night on her sofa if he happened to fall asleep. He refers to her as his "godmother."

That kind of familiarity wasn't odd, nor was it unwelcome in South Atlanta. If for no other reason, it was a tight-knit community due to the neighbors' proximity to one another. Everyone's children played with everyone else's children, and doors were always open to members of a neighbor's brood. But that's changed since allegations were made against Pratt. As a condition of his bond, he has not been permitted to return to the community. And if it was difficult for some South Atlanta residents to come to terms with the fact that a young girl – one of their own – was victimized sexually, it's been nearly impossible to come to terms with the fact that Pratt was named as her perpetrator. It seems unlikely that a community would rally on behalf of a suspect rather than a victim, but because of Pratt's standing in the neighborhood, that's what's happened.

At 92 years of age, Josephine Denson – or "Mama Jo," as she's called – is something akin to the community's conscience. Before Pratt was forced out of the neighborhood, Denson says, he was a regular fixture at her house, whether he was tending to her yard for a few bucks, fetching a glass of water when she was too tired to make a trip to the kitchen, or just keeping her company on lazy afternoons. Sitting on her front porch in a housedress, her hair done up in pin curls, she says, "I've been around childrens all my life. I know when they good and I know when they bad. He didn't do it." A police car passes in the distance, siren blaring.

"That's something they got on him wrong."

Ressie Rockmore, whose home sits within spitting distance of the victim's, has also been dubious of the accusations against Pratt. A former close friend of the victim's grandmother, she says the choosing of sides that's taken place since 2007 has created an awkward atmosphere in the neighborhood.

But the divide isn't so much about Pratt himself. In Rockmore's opinion, the wedge that's been driven into the heart of the community is the result of a sex offender having lived among them.

On Sept. 15, 2007, a day after the little girl's cousins say they saw Pratt put his leg over her as she lay belly-down in bed, a call was placed to the APD regarding the incident. It wasn't the girl's grandmother who called police, but Jason's own mother, Cynthia Pratt, who'd been confronted by the victim's grandmother and was disturbed by the accusations being made against her son.

Investigator Dwight Jenkins, a member of the APD's Child Exploitation Unit, was called in to handle the case. Jenkins' initial investigation consisted of little more than interviews with the grandmother and the victim, who told him about the incident on Sept. 14, as well as an incident several days prior, during which she claimed Pratt pulled down his pants and put his "thing" in her "butt." Jenkins determined that incident would have taken place on Sept. 8. Pratt was not interviewed by Jenkins, and, in fact, to this day hasn't been asked by anyone but his own attorney to relate his version of events. Jenkins also neglected to interview Michael Grissom, who he names in his report as having been present in the home – but in another room – on the occasion when the little girl claims Pratt assaulted her.

According to Maj. Keith Meadows of the APD's Major Crimes Section – the umbrella under which the Child Exploitation Unit exists – the standard procedure for investigating alleged sex crimes against children is as follows: preliminary interviews with the victim and the victim's guardians are conducted; the Department of Family and Children's Services is notified if a sex offender happens to frequent the home; if there's any validity to the claim of abuse, the child is immediately taken to a rape crisis center for a medical examination and a forensic interview is scheduled; finally, if probable cause exists, a warrant is issued for the suspect's arrest.

In handling this particular case, Jenkins wouldn't appear to have adhered to protocol.

More than one neighbor claims to have told Jenkins that a sex offender was living with the little girl, but there's no indication that he contacted DFACS with that information. If neighbors hadn't informed Jenkins of Grissom's presence in the home, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's online sexual offender search would have revealed that Grissom was actually registered to that address. Also, Jenkins failed to see that the little girl was immediately taken to a hospital. In fact, the grandmother didn't take the child to be examined for two more days. In a conversation with CL, Meadows stressed that, for a medical exam, "a child should be taken immediately."

No male DNA was discovered when the little girl was finally examined, but there was evidence of abuse – her vagina was open several centimeters and tears were present around her anus. During a forensic interview at the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, the girl said that on at least one occasion, Pratt had put his penis in both her vagina and anus.

Apparently satisfied with the breadth of their investigation, the APD sought a warrant for Pratt's arrest. He was picked up – that is, after officers erroneously detained his twin brother – on Sept. 22, 2007.

During Pratt's preliminary hearing five days later, Judge Karen Smith-Woodson made clear she wasn't quite as satisfied with the thoroughness of the police department's investigation. "I am going to leave this matter open," Woodson said. "I feel as though it is appropriate, if not necessary, that some additional investigation be done, certainly by the police department, by the DA's office, and conceivably by [the Public Defenders Office] so that we can get a clearer picture of the situation here." Pratt remained in juvenile detention for an additional two weeks.

From the moment Pratt was incarcerated, and despite the seriousness of the claims made against him by the young girl, there was an unprecedented outpouring of support from the residents of South Atlanta. Twenty-eight members of the community signed a letter that was submitted to the court -- the text of which read, "The undersigned are concerned neighbors and friends of Jason Pratt. Although it may not be permissible or possible for us all to be present in the courtroom, it is our hope to hereby express our heartfelt love and support for a young man who we consider to be an important part of this community" -- and Amestoy immediately began lobbying the DA's office for a meeting with Paul Howard.

There were questions South Atlantans wanted answered, for instance: Why was Grissom, a registered sex offender, allowed for so many years to reside with a young girl who is of no relation to him? And why wasn't he being investigated as a suspect?

In 1998, Grissom was convicted of child molestation. Coincidentally enough, he was tried in Judge Woodson's court. A year and several months earlier, on Feb. 9, 1996, the 12-year-old niece of his girlfriend (the grandmother of Pratt's alleged victim) – who was baby-sitting her niece at the time – awoke around midnight to find her aunt's boyfriend rubbing her breasts. According to a written statement the girl provided to police, when Grissom realized she was awake he jumped back, but continued to stand over her while fondling himself. He eventually left the room, and the girl sent a young cousin to get her aunt. Told by her niece what had occurred, the aunt assured her that it was "just a dream." Grissom later pleaded guilty, paid a fine and was sentenced to five years probation.

When Howard met with a collective of South Atlanta residents on Oct. 31, 2007, to discuss Pratt's case, Amestoy says the DA stressed that the community keep in mind that Grissom had done his time for the crime he committed more than a decade earlier, but Howard also appeared receptive to their questions and complaints regarding Grissom. Says Amestoy, "At the time, I was like, 'Yeah, he seems like a great guy.' He listened to us. We were all excited about it."

But her opinion of Howard soured as time went on and the community heard nothing of an investigation into Grissom being a potential suspect in the pending case against Pratt, nor into the legality of his residing in a domicile where he had access to children.

Howard says his office did, in fact, look into Grissom's presence in the home, but ultimately discovered no wrongdoing. "What we found out," Howard says, "is during a two-year period, the Fulton County Sheriff's Office [the agency responsible for performing sex offender address verifications] went out and interviewed this defendant, this sex offender, and he presented the address that the incident took place in as his address. They approved it twice, and I believe it was the third time they told him it wasn't OK. Yes, it was too close to a park and a school, [but he] moved away from the address."

But besides parks, schools and churches, Georgia's rather loosely worded sex offender statute also states that registered sex offenders must remain at least a 1,000 feet from "area[s] where minors congregate." Does a house where children live qualify as a place where children congregate? Howard isn't sure.

"It is very ambiguous, this law," Howard says. "That's why there's been so much litigation about it. You could look at it and make that assertion. But if you look at it carefully, it's not very clear. It really presents a problem."

According to Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which investigates cases of inmate injustice, "This case exemplifies a total systemic breakdown in protecting this little girl. It's a failure of policymakers to enact policies that protect women and children, and that goes further to victimize another child: Jason Pratt."

Unless there's "some other suggestion" on the part of Pratt's defense counsel, Howard says he intends to continue to pursue Pratt's case in superior court rather than juvenile court. The trial is slated to begin June 29.

It took two years for the DA's office to indict Pratt. Several more months have elapsed since then. Because, as a condition of his release, Pratt is not allowed in South Atlanta, for almost three years he's been forced to live apart from his mother and siblings. Cynthia Pratt told CL she'd like to move to another neighborhood so her son could move back into her home, but she simply can't afford it. He was taken in by his uncle and aunt in Ellenwood -- meaning he's had to adjust to a new school, the rules in a new home and life in the 'burbs.

Pratt's uncle, Jerry Boggs, admits that taking in a teenager has been challenging, but he believes firmly in his nephew's innocence. "If I thought he did this, family or not, he would not be in my house because that girl is a victim," Boggs says.

"He's been a pleasure," Boggs explains. "He's added value to our lives. At the same time, when all of this is over, I hope that where he goes is home. He deserves it. It's just a crazy situation."

Now 18, Pratt's dealt with the tumult of his situation with the maturity of someone much older. At the same time, he's maintained a naivety that belies the fact that he's technically an adult. That naivety worries his friends, family members, and even his attorney, Emily Gilbert. "It's a good thing," Gilbert says of Pratt's attitude, "but it also breaks my heart in a way. He really isn't worried. He's not worried because, in his mind, if you're innocent you don't go to jail. I hate to break it to him, but innocent people sit in jail everywhere."

In recent years, Pratt has become a voracious reader. He lights up talking about some of his favorites – the Harry Potter, Twilight and Eragon series of books. Whether or not it's intentional escapism, immersing himself in fantasy novels is at least a way to occupy his thoughts as his trial approaches. Between bites of a calzone at a Grant Park pizza parlor, he says, with no trace of sarcasm, something to the effect of, "At least if I get put away for 25 years, I'll have books."

To give his aunt and uncle a break, Pratt spends weekends either with his "godmother" Carrie Amestoy or his "great-godmother," Carrie's mother, Nancy, in Snellville. He can no longer visit Amestoy at home in South Atlanta, but he'd probably be embarrassed or at least humbled by what he saw if he could. Carrie commissioned an airbrushed mural on the side of her house, a dove in flight and a banner that reads "Justice for Jason." Really, though, she wants what everyone in that community does – justice for both children.

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