On November 24, 2004, a man attacked a 16-year-old girl as she walked near an expressway in Lemon Grove, California. The girl said the man pulled up in a truck and blocked her path. She said the man stared at her as she walked around the truck to a street corner and continued walking under a freeway overpass. She told police the man grabbed her as she walked up the hill on the other side of the overpass.
The girl said she screamed and attacked the man, broke free momentarily and ran down the middle of the street before the man caught her again. She said he threw her into some bushes where he sexually assaulted her. During the assault the girl saw a car on the street, fought her attacker and managed to break free once more. She ran to the car where the driver let her in.
The driver of another car saw a truck leaving the scene, but neither he nor the victim was able to provide enough detail for a composite sketch of the rapist. However, their descriptions of the truck led the police to a truck owned by the stepfather of 25-year-old Uriah Courtney, who closely resembled the girl’s attacker. In an attempt to discover evidence of the crime, police searched a storage shed owned by Courtney and discovered a methamphetamine lab, along with more than $200,000 in cash, three rifles, three handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Courtney was arrested in February 2005 after the victim identified him in a lineup. Pre-trial DNA testing of the biological evidence was inconclusive.
Courtney went on trial before a jury in San Diego County Superior Court on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and false imprisonment. The victim and the driver of the car that saw a truck leaving from the scene both identified Courtney and his stepfather’s truck.
Courtney's employer and a fellow worker testified that Courtney was working on the demolition of a U.S. Postal Service building at the same time as the attack occurred. A postal worker testified that Courtney looked like one of the workers there that day. Another postal worker said he was told Courtney was there and that he recalled that Courtney was not absent from work during the week of the attack. Payroll records showed that Courtney was paid for work on the day of the attack.
On March 15, 2006, a jury convicted Courtney and he was sentenced to life in prison. In a separate proceeding, he pled guilty to possession of more than $100,000 in proceeds of drug sales and received an additional sentence of three years in prison.
On appeal, Courtney’s convictions for rape and kidnapping were upheld but his conviction for false imprisonment was set aside as duplicative of the kidnapping conviction.
In 2010, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law began investigating the case after being contacted by Courtney's parents. The Project began negotiating with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office in April of 2011 to conduct DNA testing of the evidence.
In September 2011, the California Innocence Project filed a motion requesting that Project lawyers be appointed to represent Courtney. In February 2012, after the motion was granted, the Project filed a motion for DNA testing that was supported by Deputy District Attorney Brent Neck, who was the Conviction Integrity prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office.
In 2012, testing on biological evidence from the victim's shirt isolated a single male DNA profile that was not Courtney’s. In January 2013, the unidentified DNA profile was sent for comparison to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which maintains DNA profiles from convicted felons and from unsolved crimes. The profile from Courtney’s case was matched to a convicted felon who lived less than four miles from the scene of the attack on the girl in Lemon Grove in 2004. The District Attorney's Office then began an active investigation of the man whose DNA was found on the victim's shirt.
On June 24, 2013, a joint motion brought by the California Innocence Project and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to vacate Courtney’s conviction was granted and Courtney was released.
– Maurice Possley