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Guilt in rape case may hang on the tick, tick, tick of clock
May 29, 1981
By Paul Henderson
Professing his innocence down to the wire, Steve Titus, 31, will appear in Superior Court Monday to be sentenced for first-degree rape. He faces a mandatory three-year prison term and a possible sentence of 20 years to life. Wide-ranging motions, however, are pending before the court in Titus' behalf.
One motion, filed by his lawyer following the trial, seeks to have the judge overturn the jury verdict on the basis that there was insufficient evidence presented in the case.
Another motion seeks a new trial on grounds of new evidence emerging since the trial. This evidence includes a startling time gap in the prosecutor's case, uncovered by a reporter who relied on a stop watch and a minute-by-minute analysis of police reports.
Whether any of the new evidence will entitle Titus to a new trial, however, is uncertain. State law says that, to be admissible, the evidence "could not have been discovered through reasonable efforts prior to trial."
But you be the judge of distance and time.
The victim: a 17-year-old hitchhiker. The rape scene: a dirt lane in a heavily-wooded area south of Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The date: October 12, 1980. Investigating agency: Port of Seattle Police.
Excerpt from the statement given by the victim to a policewoman on the night of the rape:
"When he was done I asked if I could pull my pants up and he said yes and so I did ... then he said you do just what I say and you will not get hurt ... so I did.
"He said grab your bag and coat and belt and stand in front of my car and wait (until) I am gone ... then you can leave ... He backed down (the lane) a little ways and I (thought) he was going to shoot or something ... but then he started to go again.
"I walked up the road and looked to see if he had left ... He did, so I ran up the hill and looked for a house with lights on ... and so I found the one with a light on and knocked ... He helped me."
Twenty-second Avenue South, where the rape occurred, is a dead end road lying under the Sea-Tac flight path. Weeds have overgrown the foundations of demolished houses that have been condemned by the Port of Seattle, which administers the airport. As night falls, Twenty-second Avenue South turns pitch black. But to the north, one is guided through the corridor of darkness by the glow from the airport's lights.
The victim ran north. At the end of the road, on a hillside to her right, lights glowed behind a clump of leafless trees.
It was the home of Paul Liston, a retired carpenter who has yet to sell his land to the airport. She pounded on the door.
In a deposition, Liston said that no more than 10 minutes elapsed from the time the victim appeared at his house until he placed a call to Port of Seattle police.
The call was logged at 7:22 p.m. That time, and one other, are important benchmarks in the case.
During his trial, Titus testified that he was in his Kent apartment, some 8 miles away, at the time of the rape. This was supported in court by a telephone bill showing that Titus had made a long-distance call from the apartment to Lakewood in suburban Tacoma at 7 p.m.
The prosecution contended that Titus could have made the call from his apartment at 7 p.m. and still have committed the rape. The jury agreed. But the case isn't quite so open-and-shut.
Using a stop watch and pushing the speed limit along the most direct route between the rape scene and the front door of Titus' apartment in Kent, a reporter found that the elapsed time in light traffic was 19 1/2 minutes.
Thus, to have placed the call at 7 p.m., Steve Titus would have had to leave the rape scene no later than 6:45.
But that means it would have taken the victim around 30 minutes to run to Paul Liston's house a distance of about 250 yards.
Using a stop watch again in the dark of night, a reporter walked from the rape scene to Liston's front door in three minutes flat.
In her original statement, the victim said she ran north, found the light on in a house and knocked on the door. The statement made no reference to the victim becoming lost.
Chris Washington, deputy prosecutor in the case, said, however, that the victim became disoriented in the dark and had difficulty finding Liston's house.
Liston told The Times that it "seems quite doubtful" that any wrong turn could have eaten up 30 minutes.
Five driveways and dirt lanes are between the rape scene and the house where the victim found help. Starting again at the rape scene, a reporter took every possible wrong turn along the victim's route. The elapsed time to walk to Liston's house along this zig-zag course was just over eight minutes. That leaves, by the most conservative estimate, almost a quarter-hour unaccounted for.
The Times tried repeatedly to contact the victim, but she refused to discuss the case.
Jeff Jones, a former pubic-defender now in private practice, has taken over the Titus case from Thomas Hillier, the trial attorney. Jones will argue that Titus' case was sabotaged in court by two surprise changes in testimony on points that were crucial to the defense.
In a statement to police on the night of the rape, Diane Butts, a waitress who works at the Red Lion Inn on Pacific Highway South, said the victim left her at the Inn's coffee shop at 7 p.m.
In court, however, Butts rolled back the time, to 6:20 p.m.
The port police originally reported that the victim said she got into the rapist's car at 6:45 p.m. On the stand, she changed the time to 6:30 p.m.
No documents appear in port-police files to support either the victim's or the witness's change in time.
Jones contends that either of the original times would have exonerated Titus. Without knowing about the changes in times prior to trial, Jones contends that Hillier was denied the opportunity to adjust his plan of defense.
The lawyer is also expected to contend that tire tracks photographed by port police at the rape scene also should be viewed as new evidence.
Although they were entered into evidence by the prosecution, the defense was not informed until several days before the trial that the imprints did not match the tires on Titus' Chevette, Jones said.
Diane Lathrop, a port police officer, viewed the crime scene on the night of the rape and noted in her report that the victim "pointed out the exact location where the suspect vehicle parked." Lathrop also said there were "fresh tire tacks where the vehicle would have traveled."
The same imprints were photographed later that night by Ronald Parker, a port detective who headed the investigation. In a sudden change of direction, Parker testified in court that the imprints he photographed could not have come from the rapist's car.
Parker told the jury he discovered this for the first time by returning with the victim to the crime scene on the trial's opening day. The victim, he said, recalled the rapist drove straight in and backed straight out.
Parker then disclosed for the first time that the imprints he photographed "made a turn to the right."
Photographs submitted into evidence show tire imprints running in a straight line. No other officers who viewed the crime scene noted such a turn.
Photographs of the imprints were obtained from the prosecutor's office this week. An expert contacted by The Times identified the tread design as a Michelin XYZ steel-belted radial.
While the Chevette comes factory-equipped with a different tire, the Michelin XYZ is standard on a number of imported, look-alike cars, including the 1981 Honda Accord LX.
Honda dealers took delivery of that model in late September, 1980. Metallic medium blue is one of three colors available in the car, and the standard velour upholstery is matching blue. The victim told police she was raped in a "royal blue" car with blue velvet seats.
Steve Titus' light blue Chevette had vinyl seats.
The Times investigation has included extensive research on compact cars similar in exterior design and interior décor to the vehicle described by the rape victim. The Honda Accord LX is a match.
A check of Seattle and Tacoma-area Honda dealers showed that several of the blue LX models were sold during the two-week period prior to October 12. That time frame is important because the car described by the rape victim had a temporary, 15-day license plate pasted in the rear window.
Defense attorney Jones said that a third motion to be ruled on Monday appears to have the best chance in court. It seeks to have Judge Johnson reduce the charge against Titus from first to second-degree rape.
Jones says a reduction of the charge would permit Steve Titus to escape a prison sentence and continue efforts to clear his name.
Ironically, Titus also could avoid prison by admitting his guilt and going through the sexual-psychopath program at Western State Hospital.
Titus says he has given that option no consideration at all.
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