LOS ANGELES – An HIV-positive man preyed upon and sexually assaulted two 15-year-old girls in Lancaster — telling one of the “naive” high-schoolers that he was a police officer, a prosecutor alleged Monday, but a defense attorney said the prosecution’s case was “based on half-truths.”
Joseph Kenneth Cornett, 42, is facing 31 counts stemming from the two alleged assaults in Lancaster, which happened roughly three weeks apart last year.
The charges include kidnapping, rape, attempted rape, lewd acts, assault, sodomy against a minor’s will, resisting arrest and obstruction, along with two alleged Health and Safety Code violations of attempted unprotected sexual activity by one who knows himself to be infected by HIV.
Before the attorneys made their opening statements, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall granted a request to allow a camera in the courtroom, overruling an objection by defense attorney Michael Sindell that it would be prejudicial to his client.
As a cameraman began to set up equipment, Cornett stood and began walking away from the defense table.
“I’ve got kids … I’m not staying out here,” Cornett said, as a bailiff tried to get him back to his seat. “My kids are going through this, too … they’re getting picked on at school.”
Faced with a defendant unwilling to participate, the judge rescinded his earlier ruling and asked the camera operator to leave.
Hall warned everyone in the courtroom that he was “not going to tolerate any outbursts” and would remove anyone who acted out in front of the jury, referring to disruptions during an earlier hearing.
The courtroom was filled with more than a dozen spectators in leather motorcycle jackets embroidered with B.A.C.A., Bikers Against Child Abuse and “No Child Deserves to Live in Fear.”
Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami showed the jury photos of the two alleged victims, with one of the girls photographed at Antelope Valley Hospital “hours after she was sexually assaulted and sodomized by the defendant.”
Jane Doe 1 was walking home from Eastside High School on May 6, when Cornett stopped in his car and told her she could be arrested for jaywalking, Hatami said.
“She is a little naive, she is a little shy,” Hatami said. “She may have some kind of intellectual disability.”
Cornett “promised to take her home” but instead drove her to an abandoned trailer that once served as a classroom near Lancaster Baptist Church.
“He ordered her to get out of the car,” Hatami alleged. “He had her put her hands on the wall and had her spread her legs.”
He took her glasses away and “put her on all fours, he hit her, he assaulted her,” the prosecutor told jurors.
“Jane Doe 1 pleaded with the defendant to let her go” and then, when he wasn’t looking, she ran out of the trailer, wearing no pants, underwear or shoes, Hatami said.
The prosecutor had trouble playing a video that he said showed the girl running to a driver in a white car, who called 911.
Cornett “was calling her a Mexican whore, he was calling her a prostitute,” Hatami alleged.
When landscapers and people from the church joined the 911 caller at the scene, Cornett ran back to the trailer, where he was confronted by the others.
A man can be heard on the videotape saying, “She’s a prostitute, man” and “We were hanging out, man.”
The bystanders chased Cornett, who jumped into his car, which ultimately got stuck in a sandy ditch.
When deputies arrived, “he resisted … grabbed one of the deputies … (and) had to be Tased, I believe, three times,” Hatami said.
Investigators later tied Cornett to an unsolved rape case involving a 15- year-old girl from Antelope Valley High School that had happened about three weeks earlier, according to the prosecution.
Jane Doe 2 had run away from home. Scared and on the street, she ducked into a garage where she encountered Cornett and two other men, according to Hatami. Cornett offered to drive her home, but instead took her “all the way out into the desert … pulled her into the dirt and he raped her,” the prosecutor alleged.
He then told the girl, “Let’s do this again. And this time, let’s do it right, with no screaming,” before raping her again, Hatami alleged.
“Jane Doe 2 did smoke marijuana provided to her by the defendant and she did run away (from home). That didn’t mean she deserved to be raped,” Hatami said.
“The evidence will show that the defendant is nothing more than a serial rapist,” the prosecutor alleged.
In a brief opening argument, Cornett’s attorney asked jurors to “keep an open mind” and wait to hear all of the evidence before drawing any conclusions.
He asked them to pay particular attention to evidence about what happened when the two witnesses got into Cornett’s car.
The prosecution’s case, Sindell said, is “primarily based on half-truths.”
Jane Doe 1, now a 10th-grader, took the stand, identifying Cornett and saying she had tried to avoid getting into his car.
“He was like a stranger. My parents told me not to talk to strangers. So I try to … avoid them,” she said.
But she ultimately went with him because, she said, “I thought he was a cop” and “I thought he was just gonna take me home.”
Cornett, who appeared in court in a neck brace and using a walker, could face a potential life prison sentence if convicted as charged.
The trial is taking place in Dept. 111 of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building, located at 210 West Temple Street.
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