Lindin Ellzey looked at the courthouse ceiling and breathed a sigh of relief and his young accuser burst into tears after a Jones County jury told the judge they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision in his molestation trial.
The jury — made up of five white women, three black women, three white men and a black man — deliberated for less than two hours before saying they were “hopelessly deadlocked” early Friday evening. Judge Dal Williamson declared a mistrial after the jury foreman told him that 10 jurors voted “not guilty” and two voted that Ellzey was guilty.
A day earlier, jurors heard testimony from Ellzey’s 16-year-old stepdaughter, who tearfully described different sex acts they did together as she was molested “monthly” at their home in Soso from January 2009 to January 2014.
Ellzey, a 38-year-old bodybuilder and bail bondsman who worked for Burroughs Diesel for 13 years, took the stand in his own defense and denied the allegations, claiming that they stemmed from a custody battle with his ex-wife over their younger daughter.
After testifying that he “would never do anything like” he was accused of, two more teenage girls testified that Ellzey exposed himself to them while they were in fifth grade at a sleepover with his stepdaughter.
Ellzey countered with two public officials — Ellisville Police Chief Bruce Russell and former DA, now public defender Grant Hedgepeth. They vouched for Ellzey’s character just before the closing arguments of Assistant District Attorney Kristen Martin and defense attorney Christopher Farris of Hattiesburg.
“We’re disappointed that two jurors didn’t see it our way,” Farris said, “but not being found guilty is a victory. I think we presented a strong defense. Mr. Ellzey consistently denied the charges … his story is the only one that hasn’t changed.”
Farris said it’s up to the Jones County DA’s office to “see what happens next.” Martin said Friday that it was too early to say if there would be a retrial, especially since the case hinges on the testimony of the stepdaughter.
“The family is devastated, particularly the victim,” Martin said after a short meeting with them after the trial. “She feels like no one believes her. We will regroup (this) week to see if there’s something we can do different.”
But the ultimate decision will be up to the stepdaughter and her family, and if they want to go through another trial, Martin said.
“I can’t imagine, at 16, having the courage to come forward and do what she did … but she wanted her little sister to be protected,” Martin said.
The stepdaughter testified that the molestation started when she was 8 and continued until she was 13, but she said she didn’t come forward until her stepfather tried to get custody of the daughter Ellzey and her mother had during their eight-year marriage.
Two years earlier, the teen’s parents took the accuser to counseling after they suspected something had happened to her, but she wouldn’t talk about it then, they testified. In February 2014, the Department of Human Services determined that allegations against Ellzey were unfounded, and the investigator for the case took the stand and said so.
“She did not appear afraid … and I don’t recall any resistance or crying,” said Diara Thompson of Child Protective Services. “She said she didn’t like the way (Ellzey) looked at her. I found no evidence of sexual abuse.”
Martin noted that there would be no physical evidence so many years later. Ellzey later voluntarily signed a custody agreement that he would only have supervised visits with the younger daughter.
“She said if I didn’t sign the papers, she would ruin my life,” Ellzey testified, referring to his ex-wife. “She said she would charge me with a sex crime and put me all over the news. I was frightened because I knew what she was capable of … I very reluctantly signed it, and I’ve regretted it every day.”
Ellzey testified that he went on to have more than 100 unsupervised visits with their younger daughter, but that only became an issue when he became romantically involved with his current wife, Jessica.
He admitted to punching his ex-wife’s new husband after a soccer match involving his younger daughter in October 2016. Ellzey said the man referred to his wife Jessica as “sir,” noting that they are both into physical fitness.
“He disrespected my wife and denied me as a father,” Ellzey said, saying that the new stepfather was holding the girl by the wrist and trying to get her to his vehicle to go home.
It was after that confrontation that the ex-wife said her lawyer would be in contact with Ellzey, he testified.
When the ex-wife said she was going to enforce the supervised visitation requirement, Ellzey filed for custody of the younger daughter. That’s when the teen accuser told her mother that her little sister would “not be safe” with Ellzey, so she decided to tell what happened to her.
A child specialist on the coast interviewed her and determined that her story was credible, so the JCSD issued a warrant for Ellzey’s arrest and charged him with three counts of child molestation in January ’17. If convicted, he would have faced up to 45 years in prison.
The teen’s mother testified that her daughter had never told her details of what happened to her, but she was able to tell the jury, despite sobbing at times under intense questioning by Farris. When the judge was reading jury instructions, he had to describe the crimes Ellzey was charged with. When he did, the mother ran out of the courtroom crying.
The jury saw a 45-minute videotaped interview that JCSD investigator Sgt. Jason Myers did with Ellzey, who has a degree in criminal justice from Southern Miss. Myers said told Ellzey that the child specialist did not “detect deception” in her descriptions of what happened and told him that she had “in-depth knowledge” with “a lot of ugly details.”
Myers encouraged him to admit to the crimes, but Ellzey asked, “What does that do for me?”
Myers asked Ellzey if he had done what he was accused of, and more than once, Ellzey paused and answered, “I can’t sit here and admit to this. It didn’t happen.”
The jury went to deliberate just after 4 p.m. and returned just before 6 p.m. saying they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict.
“It was our hope that the jury could give (the stepdaughter) a measure of justice,” Martin said, “but it doesn’t mean they thought she was lying. There was just reasonable doubt.”
Farris said that “the last two witnesses” — the teens who claimed Ellzey exposed himself to them — may have influenced the two jurors who voted guilty.
“They have had years to report this, but they didn’t,” he said.
Farris said he was glad the jurors considered the evidence because, with the political climate across the country, “it’s been open season on men.”