Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Chris Taffner

Other Arkansas exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Washington_County_AR.png
On Christmas Day, 2014, when Chris Taffner turned 54, he spent the holiday with extended and immediate family members, including his wife, Anita, their five adopted children and two foster children. It was a time to give thanks. The family farmed 1,000 acres (800 leased) in Summers, Arkansas. Taffner annually raised about 150 beef cattle and put up about 3,600 bales of hay. Anita worked nights as a supervisor in the housecleaning department at nearby University of Arkansas. Over the past several years, the family had taken in 21 foster children in all.

Within a month, it all began to fall apart when two adopted daughters, both age 13, and one foster daughter, age 14, accused Taffner of sexually molesting and assaulting them.

In 2016, Taffner was convicted of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to 140 years in prison. The farm had to be sold. The children were removed from the home.

Six years later, in May 2022, the case was dismissed after evidence surfaced that one of the girls had made false accusations of sexual and physical abuse in the past—evidence that was not presented at Taffner’s trial. All of the allegations had been undermined over the years, and when the prosecution was presented with an opportunity to take the case to trial once more it demurred, saying the girls, all nearly out of their teens, no longer wanted to testify.

In 2019, Taffner had been released from prison pending a possible retrial, but he no longer wished to live in Arkansas, saying he was being harassed by police. In just one month, he was stopped seven times, none of which resulted in any charges. And then, his wife, Anita, divorced him.

If Taffner was living the American dream at age 54 in 2014, the dismantling of that dream began on January 2, 2015, when Washington County Sheriff’s officers first questioned and then arrested him on charges that he sexually assaulted his 13-year-old adopted daughter, BT, and a 14-year-old foster daughter, MG. Two weeks later, another adopted 13-year-old daughter, KT, also accused him of molesting her.

He adamantly denied the charges.

Taffner and Anita wed in 1998. In 2010, the couple began taking in foster children. Over the next several years, they fostered 21 children—10 boys and 11 girls. In 2011, the couple adopted three siblings, BT and NT, both girls, and AT, their brother. The couple would testify that there were no problems until 2012 when they decided to adopt two more foster children—KT and her brother, JT.

By that time, KT and JT had been living with the family for several months. When the family met to discuss the adoption of KT and JT, the oldest of the first group of adopted children, BT, opposed the adoption of KT and JT. About that time, BT began cutting herself and refused to do normal household chores. The situation did not change when KT and JT were adopted in 2013.

In October 2014, as Taffner and his wife were trying to handle BT’s problems through counseling, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) asked them to take in two more foster children—MG, a 14-year-old girl, and MG’s younger sister, JC. Taffner and Anita agreed, though by that time, BT, who was 13, was still in counseling for cutting herself. The family had to keep all sharp objects under lock and key.

And then, in early December, 2014, BT overdosed on Oxycontin at school. Paramedics were called, and she was revived. BT revealed that she got the pills from MG. As a result, BT was suspended and was informed she would only be allowed back by performing cleanup duties after a specified number of school sporting events. She refused to do them, though.

MG was expelled, and DHS ordered that she be sent to a drug-treatment facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Because the facility was closed for the Christmas holiday, Taffner picked up MG and brought her to the farm on December 23. By then, Taffner and his wife had decided that they would take MG back to the facility after Christmas and that they would not take her back as a foster child.

During a family get-together for Christmas, BT became angry when she heard Taffner talking to other family members—his older brother and sister-in-law—about BT’s problems with cutting herself. BT told Taffner, “I’ll get you for this.”

On December 26, 2014, Taffner drove MG back to the counseling center in Fort Smith. Along the way, Taffner informed MG that they were no longer going to foster her—that she would not be returning to the farm. MG began crying, Taffner said. But the decision had been made.

Three days later, Washington County Sheriff’s Detective Brett Hagan called Taffner in for an interview. Over more than an hour, Hagan asked Taffner about the family’s lives and eventually disclosed that MG had accused Taffner of fondling her breasts—in her bed, in the cab of his tractor, and on an overnight camping trip. Taffner denied the allegations.

At the same time, Taffner’s wife had been contacted and was instructed to bring all of their children—adopted and foster—to the Children’s Safety Center in Springdale, Arkansas, for forensic interviews and physical examinations.

Specifically, 13-year-old BT and 13-year-old KT were questioned. BT claimed that Taffner had put his penis and his finger in her vagina, had forced her to have oral sex, and fondled her breasts. KT made no allegations against Taffner at that time, but two weeks later said that Taffner had fondled her breasts as well.

Taffner was arrested a few hours after his interview at the Sheriff’s Office. He was charged with numerous counts of rape and sexual assault of BT, KT, and MG.

On January 8, 2016, Taffner’s defense lawyers, William Mayo and Matthew Kezhaya, filed a motion seeking to use specific instances of dishonesty to impeach the girls and to offer evidence as to their reputation for honesty. Washington County Circuit Court Judge Mark Lindsay held a hearing on the motion on January 12, 2016. At the hearing, Taffner’s attorneys argued that they should be allowed to question BT about false sexual abuse charges she had made against her biological father that had been investigated but found to be unsubstantiated. The hearing, which also involved other issues, ended without a ruling regarding BT's questioning.

On March 11, 2016, the defense filed a motion to compel production of a DHS file, which the defense argued contained a report of the sexual abuse allegation BT made against her biological father when she was about seven years old. They contended BT’s claim had been found to be unsubstantiated. That same day, the court ordered production of the file for an in camera review of its impeachment or exculpatory value. The file was brought to court, and another hearing was held later that day.

At that hearing, a DHS attorney claimed that the file did not contain any evidence that BT had recanted her claim of sex abuse. Judge Lindsay, in considering whether the DHS file should be given to the defense, noted that BT's biological father's rights had been terminated. A Juvenile Court judge’s termination order stated that BT had disclosed sexual abuse by her biological father. Judge Lindsay said that there was no evidence BT had recanted her claim, and added, “There is no need for me to examine the juvenile file.”

The court asked the prosecution to prepare a written order reflecting the ruling, and the hearing ended.

Taffner's trial began on March 14, 2016. Hagan testified, and the jury was shown the video recording of Hagan’s interview with Taffner, during which Taffner denied engaging in any improper behavior. Taffner did note that he and his wife had problems with money being stolen from their bedroom and difficulty with BT and MG’s behavior and drug problems. He said the girls tweaked each other’s nipples and engaged in sexual language.

Before BT testified, Judge Davidson held another hearing to revisit whether the defense could question BT about the allegation she had made against her biological father. During the hearing, Judge Davidson noted that the rape shield law prevented the defense from questioning BT about her prior allegation of sexual abuse if BT continued to assert that the allegation was true. BT was questioned outside the presence of the jury, and she testified that her allegations of sexual abuse by her biological father were false. As a result, Judge Davidson said he would allow the defense to ask BT if she made an allegation against her biological father, whether it was true, how long ago the allegation was made, and how old she was at the time.

“And that's it,” the judge declared. “Nothing like records that we've talked about in the past and then that's going to be the end of that subject matter.”

The trial resumed. BT told the jury that Taffner came into her bed—at one point saying it occurred every Friday while Anita was at work—and fondled her, digitally penetrated her vagina, and forced her to engage in oral sex. She denied, however, that he inserted his penis in her. When asked about her prior allegation against her biological father, BT said, “Now that I know the terms that they use, it is not true.”

MG testified as well and said that Taffner groped her in the cab of the tractor, in a tent while camping, and in her bed at home before Anita came home from work.

KT also testified that Taffner touched her breasts.

The prosecution presented evidence that a forensic examination of Taffner’s cellphone revealed three “pornographic” images that had been texted to him. The girls had said they had seen one of the images, which was an action video of a clothed woman with large breasts jumping up and down.

Sue Stockton, a sexual assault nurse examiner, testified that she conducted a physical examination of BT and that her finding was “normal.” Even so, Stockton’s report said, "A normal exam is consistent with a disclosure of penetration past the labia majora."

The prosecutor, assistant district attorney Bryan Lamb, asked a series of questions designed to show the jury that a “normal” examination finding was not inconsistent with penetration.

“And your testimony was that in 90 percent of the cases where there’s clear evidence of penetration, you can’t tell by looking at the hymen if there’s been penetration?” he asked.

“That’s correct,” Stockton said.

“And what do you mean by when there’s clear evidence of penetration?” Lamb asked. “Do you have an example of that?”

“Penetration is anything that penetrates between the labia majora, no matter how slight. So you can have penetration and not actually have an injury that you can detect on examination for several reasons,” Stockton said. “Clear evidence of penetration would be the patient is pregnant, they have a sexually transmitted infection, they have bruising, bleeding, or some kind of tear that you can see at that moment in between the labium majora, or a healed injury, a split that’s totally healed,” Stockton.

She said that injuries in the vaginal area heal “super fast—within two weeks. So if you don’t see an injury immediately, chances are that in the genital area it could heal back in two weeks, and you’ll never notice. In the anus, it can heal within one to two days, three days. That’s how fast it heals.”

Stockton added, “If you have a hundred patients that are all pregnant, 90 percent of them are going to have the normal checkup even though they’re pregnant. And there’s been studies done with this by Dr. Nancy Kellogg in San Antonio where she looked at pregnant teenagers and found that to be the case. So it can be consistent with the disclosure [of sexual assault].”

Stockton said she examined KT's vagina. She reported: "The notches at 3 and 9 may support a disclosure of abuse, however this child made no disclosure at this time." And an anal examination was "normal."

Lamb asked, “So like [BT], [KT’s] findings were normal even having these notches, and they’re consistent with disclosure [of no sex abuse]?”

“She -- at the time that -- whenever I see these children, I am requested by law enforcement to do this examination,” Stockton said. “I don’t ask them any interview questions. And at the time, it was consistent with the disclosure because she made none, and then I learned she came back later. But at the time, she didn’t make disclosure so, yeah, it was normal, consistent with disclosure, which was none.”

During cross-examination, defense attorney Mayo asked: “My question is, if the disclosure that was made to you or subsequently made to you that, in fact, what had really happened was that she had been repeatedly raped over a period of two to three years, penile, with a penis, normal sexual intercourse—abnormal, of course, with a child—would you still have found that your findings of her hymen being intact would be consistent with that kind of a disclosure?”

“Yes,” Stockton said. “Based on the science that’s been done where you can have normal checkups even with disclosures of penetration.”

“Is it also true that if the disclosure is false, that having a normal hymen would be consistent with that alternative as well?” Mayo asked.

“That’s correct,” Stockton said.

Heather Farrell, a state serologist, testified that she was asked to conduct an examination of numerous items police took from the Taffner home, including Taffner’ s robe, as well as bedding from the girls’ beds. All were negative for semen and for blood.

Asked for reasons why she did not find any blood or semen, Farrell testified, “If the items were possibly washed, or if there was any length of time in between when a stain was deposited to the time that I examined the item, it’s less likely that there would be anything there.”

“Can you elaborate on the time frame of when it might be too long for semen to be discoverable?” Lamb asked.

“Unfortunately, we -- there’s no set time limit as to the length that semen will stay on an item,” Farrell said. “If it’s washed, it’s less likely to contain any stains that may be identified as semen, but we can’t really put a time frame on how long semen can stay on an item like we can with a body cavity.”

During cross-examination, Mayo asked Farrell whether another explanation for “the finding that there’s no evidence present” could be “the fact that there never was any evidence there?”

Farrell acknowledged, “That is a possibility, yes.”

Leon Frisard, a Washington County sheriff’s detective assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and specialize in computer crimes and mobile phone forensics, said he downloaded the three “pornographic” images from Taffner’s phone. He said the images had been texted to the phone, but could not say when or from whom.

Barbara Dillon, a mental health counselor, testified for the defense that after reading the reports and documents relating to BT, KT and MG, she “saw enough…to know that these are very troubled children, very traumatized children."

She said that such troubled children “can kind of turn on a dime, you know, an attachment...can turn into…hatred–to a broken relationship.”

Dillon agreed that whatever attachment to a parent was apparent on the surface could have “a deep layer of mistrust” underneath.

“Does that -- would that help to explain under some circumstances a foster child who’s falsely accused their foster parent, under some circumstances?” Kezhaya asked.

“Yes,” Dillon replied.

“And is it your understanding in your specialty that sometimes children do lie about sexual abuse?” Kezhaya asked.

“Absolutely,” Dillon testified.

“And does what you know about child psychology, does that exclude the possibility that underneath that layer of attachment is a void of potential anger or distrust or –"

“Yes, it’s what we often see in foster children, Dillon interjected.

“And would that help to explain [KT’s] changing stories from an initial non-disclosure to an allegation?” Kezhaya asked.

“That’s certainly a strong possibility,” Dillon said.

Taffner testified and denied all of the girls’ allegations. He said the images on his phone had been texted to him by an acquaintance who was going to get a new phone and didn’t want to lose them. He said he only accepted the texts as a favor, and the acquaintance never asked for them back.

A friend of Taffner’s, Donald “Catfish” Holt, testified that some of the girls considered him a “grandpa.” Holt said Taffner was “a good man and a real good father.”

Holt knew all the girls because they spent time at his neighboring farm. He said MG “wants to scheme and makes everybody else think she’s doing good, and every way she can to work to lay the blame on somebody else, and she’s just trying to scheme and get her way, and she’s an innocent child is the way she looks at it.”

Holt recalled going on walks with BT during which she spoke of suicide, and he counseled her to resist such feelings. At the same time, Holt said BT was “not trustworthy on what she tells you is the truth. She’ll lie to you right straight out.”

Asked about KT, Holt said that she “got a little what you call boy crazy, and she wasn’t honest about a lot of things…when she turned about 13. She just wasn’t honest then.” Holt added that KT would “do anything” to please BT.

The defense also sought to present testimony from Jonathan Zovak, who would have stated that MG had a reputation for dishonesty. Zovak was a convicted sex offender based on a claim made by MG. The judge refused to allow Zovak to testify.

On March 18, 2016, Taffner was found guilty of two counts of rape and three counts of sexual assault. Judge Davidson sentenced him to 140 years in prison.

In March 2018, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the trial court for a hearing. The court ordered Judge Davidson to actually review BT’s DHS file which Judge Davidson had declined to do. The court also said that Judge Davidson’s refusal to allow Zovak to testify was wrong and should have been allowed.

On October 18, 2018, Judge Davidson, after reviewing BT’s DHS files, granted a new trial. The ruling was sealed.

Taffner was released on bond on January 19, 2019 pending a possible retrial. In April 2022, the prosecution amended the case to dismiss charges related to KT.

On May 2, 2022, the prosecution said it would not go forward with the trial because BT and MG did not want to testify at a retrial. The prosecution said they reserved the right to refile charges should new evidence surface. And so, the case was dismissed on May 2 with that reservation by the prosecution.

On May 10, Kezhaya filed a motion seeking to unseal the ruling granting a new trial, to dismiss the case with prejudice, and to seal Taffner’s criminal case.

In the motion, Kezhaya said the prosecution had failed to disclose DHS reports that supported Taffner’s claim of innocence. The reports included that BT had in fact recanted her allegation against her biological father—contrary to the DHS attorney’s claim in the pretrial hearing. In addition, the undisclosed records showed that BT had also made a false accusation of physical abuse against an aunt, in whose care BT had been placed after she falsely accused her biological father.

The motion detailed that three weeks before BT made her accusation against Taffner, a DHS worker filed a report saying that BT “stated she feels safe” at the Taffner home.

The motion said that the prosecution had in its possession multiple documents, dated both before and after MG’s allegation against Taffner, which denied [MG] Arkansas Medicaid benefits because MG engaged in “deception” and “manipulation.” DHS records reflected MG being characterized as a “liar” and a “manipulator,” the motion said.

In addition, the motion said that the prosecution had a statement from a counselor at the drug facility where MG was living one month after MG accused Taffner. In that statement, the counselor reported that MG said she intended to lie if questioned in an unrelated criminal investigation.

The motion said that on two occasions in December 4 and 5, 2014—just three weeks before MG made her accusation against Taffner, MG told a counselor that she had not been subjected to any sexual abuse. “The patient [MG] denies any history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse,” one statement said.

Moreover, on four occasions in November 2014, MG reported how much she enjoyed living in the Taffner home. On November 24, MG “stated she was very happy in her current placement on the farm and enjoyed working in the fields with her foster dad,” one report said.

The motion said that Taffner was entitled to a full dismissal. Some defense witnesses were no longer available, such as Donald “Catfish” Holt, who had since died. MG’s Medicaid file could no longer be found. Alternatively, Kezhaya argued that the case should be dismissed permanently as a sanction because of the state’s failure to disclose the DHS records which impeached BT and MG and showed they were happy living with the Taffner family.

“After more than seven years, over a third of which Chris spent wrongfully imprisoned, Chris is entitled to a final disposition,” the motion said. “If any good can come from these unjust charges, it must be to deter future innocents from being wrongfully convicted.”

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 5/13/2022
Last Updated: 5/13/2022
State:Arkansas
County:Washington
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2014
Convicted:2016
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:140 years
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:53
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No