By JUAN A. LOZANO 09/21/12 06:47 PM ET EDT
Rayford Tyrone Ellis Jr., Timothy Daray Ellis desciption Rayford Tyrone Ellis Jr., right, and Timothy Daray Ellis, left, leave the Liberty County Courthouse after a status update in their cases Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, in Liberty, Texas. Both men are among more than a dozen men accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl that horrified and divided their small Southeast Texas town that appeared in court Monday.
LIBERTY, Texas -- Four men who pleaded guilty in the repeated sexual assault of an 11-year-old Texas girl were each sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison, terms they agreed to in deals with prosecutors.
Their sentencing hearings came after another man charged in the 2010 case chose to go to trial and was convicted and sentenced last month to 99 years in prison. Legal experts said his harsh punishment probably prompted the four sentenced Friday to plead guilty and will likely mean the seven defendants with cases still pending will seek their own plea deals.
Sentenced Friday were: Timothy Ellis, 20; his cousin, Rayford Ellis Jr., 21; Kelvin King, 23; and Jared McPherson, 20. All had pleaded guilty earlier this month to aggravated sexual assault of a child, and each must register as a sex offender once released from prison.
Rayford Ellis also pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a 2008 case, while King pleaded guilty to another aggravated sexual assault charge in a 2009 case involving an attack on a different girl. Each received 15 years for those charges and will serve those sentences at the same time as the ones for assaulting the 11-year-old.
Each defendant was allowed to hug family members before being taken away by authorities. All except for Rayford Ellis had been free on bail. Relatives of the defendants declined to comment after the hearings.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors also declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case.
During his sentencing hearing, King told the judge he was unhappy with his attorney, Jerry Andress, and his plea deal.
"I feel like, well, my lawyer really didn't talk about the case," King said.
Afterward, King's father, Kevin King, and Andress argued outside the courtroom about the sentence. Both men declined to comment to reporters.
Prosecutors say the girl, now 13, was sexually assaulted on at least five occasions by 20 men and boys in the Southeast Texas town of Cleveland, about 45 miles northeast of Houston. The girl was 11 years old during the assaults from mid-September through early December 2010. Police began investigating that December after a classmate of the girl's told a teacher he had seen cellphone video of men having sex with her.
All six juveniles and six of the 14 adults charged, including those sentenced Friday, pleaded guilty. The only defendant to opt for a trial, Eric McGowen, was convicted and sentenced last month to 99 years in prison, but he wasn't in court to face his punishment. McGowen, who had been free on bail, skipped out during a break on the first day of testimony, which included the girl's tearful recounting of the assaults and McGowen's role in them. He was arrested two weeks later in Houston.
The four men sentenced Friday accepted their plea deals after McGowen was tried and convicted.
Legal experts said Friday the seven adult defendants who still have cases pending are probably going to avoid trial after seeing what happened with McGowen.
"Unless one of the remaining co-defendants has something brand new, we are not going to see any more trials from this point forward," said Grant Scheiner, a Houston criminal defense attorney not involved in the case.
Joel Androphy, another Houston attorney not connected to the case, said a 99-year prison sentence for one defendant would definitely scare his co-defendants into pleading guilty. But Androphy said he believes at least one of the remaining defendants will probably decide to take his chances at trial.
"Trials are a roll of the dice. You have to weigh it all and decide how to handle it," the attorney said.