Defendant’s appeal of life sentences for giving young stepdaughters STDs denied
A Laurel man who gave a sexually transmitted disease to his two young stepdaughters was denied in his appeal to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the two life sentences Judge Dal Williamson ordered him to serve.
Rickey Portis, 54, argued that his punishment was “disproportionate to the crime” and that the jury’s guilty verdict was “not supported by sufficient evidence.” But the high court disagreed, unanimously affirming Portis’ convictions for two counts of sexual battery and the two life sentences after a trial in Jones County Circuit Court in April 2016.
The Jones County Sheriff’s Department began investigating the allegations in February 2015, when the girls — then 8 and 9 — told a family member that Portis had been touching them inappropriately.
Investigator Tonya Madison took the girls to a child specialist in Meridian for a forensic interview, which revealed that Portis had committed several different sexual acts with them. When they went to University Medical Center to be examined. Both girls tested positive for trichomoniasis, an STD that “in a child is definitive of sexual abuse,” Dr. Scott Benton testified. “This is not a birth infection … or toilet seat type of thing.”
After Madison got a warrant to collect a urine sample, Portis tested positive for the same STD. He took the witness stand and denied having sexual contact with the girls, saying that “their baby daddy wanted to get me out of the house for some reason or other.”
Portis was indicted for two counts of sexual battery in May 2015 and he hired Jeannene Pacific to represent him. But a little more than a week before the scheduled trial in April 2016, Pacific filed a motion to withdraw as his counsel.
Pacific believed the chances of Portis being convicted “were great” because of the medical evidence, so she had been in plea negotiations with Assistant District Attorney Kristen Martin. But Pacific told the court that she had “lost all ability to communicate” with Portis. “Whatever she tells him is met with some off-the-wall reasoning about some secret deal that he believes Investigator Madison made with the lab who tested Portis for the STD, and also that God was going to take care of him.”
Pacific told the court that all of her advice was meth “irrational responses” and that Portis’ family had cursed her and called her names.
She said she couldn’t proceed since she believed that she is “subjecting this defendant to potentially two life sentences if convicted.”
The court denied the motion and appointed then-assistant public defender Brad Thompson to assist with the trial. A week later, Pacific renewed her motion to withdraw and Thompson joined her.
Portis announced that he had retained Hattiesburg attorney Gay Polk-Payton as counsel and he refused to consider the proposed plea of 10 years in prison that Pacific and Thompson had arranged, telling them that Polk-Payton advised him not to sign anything.
On April 1, Polk-Payton became Portis’ lead counsel and she asked for a continuance, and it was granted. Williamson set the trial date for April 18 and the former defense attorneys provided all of their documents and Pacific agreed to assist.
The jury found Portis guilty and the judge sentenced him to two life sentences, to be served consecutively. Portis appealed, filing a motion for judgment not withstanding verdict or to get a new trial. Williamson denied both motions and Portis appealed to the state Supreme Court, citing that the trial court erred by refusing to grant a continuance, insufficient evidence and that his sentences “constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” among other complaints.
Portis’ argument that the 13-day continuance was forced “misrepresents the facts, as it is completely belied by the record,” the high court wrote in its opinion. “The trial court should not be held in error for granting Portis the continuance he asked for and agreed to.”
The high court found no error in the trial court’s decisions and no merit to Portis’ other claims. It pointed out that sexual battery can carry a sentence of up to life in prison, and “a sentence within the limits prescribed by statute is not ordinarily subject to appellate review,” before going on to use case law to justify the punishment.
“The trial court noted the Portis’ actions were ‘unspeakable and appalling’ and that he had robbed the victims of their childhood innocence,” the high court noted. “His life sentences for sexual battery of a child under the age of (14) do not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”