Court hearing appeal in high-profile rape case

By Lynne Tuohy
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The lawyer for a New Hampshire man convicted of raping a 15-year-old member of his fundamentalist Baptist church congregation is arguing for a new trial, saying statements he made to his pastor should not have been used against him.

But prosecutors say statements made by Ernest Willis, 54, to his pastor were not protected by religious privilege because they involved the sexual abuse of a child.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the case Wednesday.

Willis was convicted in May 2011 of forcible rape and statutory rape of the girl in 1997. He is serving a 15-to-30 year sentence.

His trial garnered national attention because the pastor of the church both he and the girl attended — Charles Phelps — made the girl apologize to the congregation. Phelps then helped ship the pregnant girl to live with a Colorado couple she didn’t know and put her baby up for adoption.

Phelps did report the sexual assaults to police, after learning the girl was pregnant and demanding to know from Willis what happened.

But Concord police say they were forced to shelve the case when they couldn’t locate the girl to interview her. They finally learned her married name from websites critical of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement and reached her in Arizona, where she now lives.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan McGinnis, in her briefs to the Supreme Court, said Phelps acknowledged he was “conducting a bit of an investigation,” as opposed to spiritual counseling, when he confronted Willis in the fall of 1997..

Willis at trial maintained the sexual intercourse was consensual and that there was only one incident. Before trial he pleaded guilty to statutory rape, based on the girl’s age.

Phelps testified, however, that Willis told him there were two episodes and described himself as “the aggressor.”

Chief Appellate Defender Christopher Johnson argued that Willis’ statements to Phelps were made in Phelps’ capacity as a spiritual adviser and should have remained confidential.

Willis is also challenging admission of a police interview of him in which Concord police detective Christopher DeAngelis doubts Willis’s credibility and states that Anderson has no motive to lie.

“The jury asked to hear the interview again and, about an hour later, returned guilty verdicts,” Johnson stated in his brief.

McGinnis defended DeAngelis’ statements as “a legitimate interrogation tool” in the fact of shifting stories being given by Willis.