Juan Celestino

In March 1989, Eva Celestino began baby-sitting a girl who was not quite two years old in the Celestino family home in Gibsonburg, Ohio. She watched the child while her husband, Juan, who was known as John, was at work in nearby Fremont, Ohio.

In September 1989, the two-year-old girl began having severe nightmares at home. After several months, the girl was so uncontrollable that her mother took her to see a mental health therapist.

The girl made no disclosures to the mental health therapist but became uncontrollable the following day, hiding in a closet and screaming. A week later, she was taken to the Sandusky County Department of Human Services, where she refused to answer any questions.

In May 1990, the girl, then three-years-old, was taken to Medical College of Ohio for a medical examination after her mother said the girl told her, “That the monster put sticks in her butt.” The girl was uncooperative, so the examination was rescheduled. On June 4, 1990, the girl was sedated and a physical examination was done which resulted in a finding by the examining doctor of “sexual victimization with rectal findings.”

On June 17, 1990, the mental health therapist, who had been meeting with the girl weekly since March 23, 1990, recorded a notation that the girl's mother directly asked the girl “did John hurt you?”
 
On June 22, 1990, the girl was taken to the Sandusky County Department of Human Services for a second time. The social worker who talked with the girl said that the girl denied anyone had ever touched her inappropriately.

By July 1990, Eva Celestino was no longer baby-sitting the girl. At that time, the girl and her mother moved directly across the street from the Celestino home. Not long after, the mother and the girl were sitting on the front porch of their home when two of Eva and Juan Celestino’s children walked past. The girl then told her mother that Juan Celestino had hurt her.

The mother took the girl back to the Sandusky County Department of Human Services. Again, the girl denied that anyone improperly touched her. A social worker asked the girl directly if Juan or Eva had hurt her and the girl said they had not. In fact, the girl said that she liked the Celestino family.

The girl and her mother left that office and went to the prosecutor's office in Sandusky County. An investigator took the girl to an office where the girl’s attention was drawn to a computer. The investigator told the girl that she knew that “someone had hurt her and if she could tell me who that was, if she could tell me the names of the person or persons that hurt her, that I could show her how to type their names on my computer.”

The investigator pointed out the proper letters on the computer keyboard and the girl typed “John pee-pee on my butt and on my pee-pee.” With the investigator pointing to the letters, the girl also typed a sentence saying that Eva had slapped her with a belt.

The girl then made marks on anatomically correct drawings indicating that she had been hurt in the genital area, the abdomen, the right thigh, the face, the buttock area, the back of the legs, the center of the back and the back of the head. Asked to show what parts of the body of her assaulter had used, the girl marked the penis, the right hand, the head, thighs and knees of the drawing of the adult male.

When the girl’s mother was brought into the room, the girl refused to discuss the information.

Three days later, on July 26, 1990, the mother took the girl to the mental health therapist where the girl’s mother told the therapist that her daughter had implicated Juan and Eva Celestino. The therapist then met with the girl and later reported that the girl had made comments similar to those made to the District Attorney’s investigator.

In August 1990, police searched the Celestino home and Juan and Eva were questioned. In November 1990, Juan Celestino was indicted on a charge of rape and a charge of digital sexual penetration.

On April 9, 1991, following a hearing, the judge found the girl was not competent to testify because she did not know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie.

The prosecution then sought to introduce the testimony of the mental health therapist and the investigator from the District Attorney’s Office. At a hearing in September 1991, the girl was questioned by the prosecution and denied that Juan or Eva Celestino had ever harmed her. Asked if anyone had ever hurt her, she said, “Just my mom.” The girl denied previously telling anyone that someone had hurt her.
 
The case then went to trial in the Sandusky County Court of Common Pleas. The girl’s mother testified to the baby-sitting arrangement and to her daughter’s behavior. The doctor who had made the physical finding of anal abuse testified that the abuse could have been done by a male or female pushing an object into the girl's rectum.

The judge allowed the mental health therapist who had met with the girl to testify about their sessions together, disclosures made by the girl, and her opinion that the girl was truthful when she said she was sexually abused. The investigator who worked at the office of the prosecuting attorney was also allowed to testify regarding statements the girl made and typed on the computer.
 
The therapist and the investigator said they asked the girl more directly about being abused by Celestino than they normally would in a sex abuse investigation—when questions such as that can be powerfully suggestive. They said they did so because they knew that a physician had already made a finding of anal abuse.
 
Celestino called several witnesses on his behalf. The social worker from the Sandusky County Department of Human Services testified that the girl denied any abuse. The parents of two other children who had been in the care of Eva Celestino for a short time in 1989 testified to the good care their children received. The principal of an elementary school and a church deacon testified to the family’s good reputation. Celestino testified on his own behalf and denied there was any abuse.

On September 27, 1991, the jury convicted Celestino on both counts and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In March 1993, the Ohio Court of Appeals for the 6th District vacated the conviction. The court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict. “The doctor who reviewed the medical records of the child and who testified at trial concluded that anal abuse could be committed by a female, as well as by a male, and could be accomplished by placing any object in the child's rectum,” the court said. “While evidence exists that the child was present in (Celestino’s) home on occasions when (Celestino) was also present, no evidence existed to demonstrate that appellant ever had exclusive access to the child.”

The court added, “No evidence exists to exclusively identify (Celestino) as the perpetrator of abuse against the child.”

On June 14, 1993, the case was dismissed and Celestino was released from prison.

Celestino then filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit in an attempt to obtain compensation. On October 15, 1994, while the case was pending, Celestino, who had a history of heart failure, died.

His widow, Eva, pursued the lawsuit, however, and in July, 1995, a judge ruled that Celestino’s innocence was proven by a preponderance of the evidence. On December 21, 1995, the Ohio Board of Claims awarded Eva Celestino $57,000.

– Maurice Possley

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State:Ohio
County:Sandusky
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1989
Convicted:1991
Exonerated:1995
Sentence:Life
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age:41
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No