LIBERTY, Texas Three of the 19 men and boys accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl pleaded not guilty Monday in a case that has horrified and divided the small Liberty County town of Cleveland. Other defendants were also in court, and more were set to appear later in the day meaning all of the adults charged would pass through.
Since February, police have arrested individuals ranging from a middle-school student to a 27-year-old, accusing them of sexually assaulting the girl on at least four occasions starting in September.
On Monday morning, suspects Xavier King, Jared McPherson, Jamarcus Napper, Isaiah Ross, Tyrone Ellis, Devo Green and Carlos Ligons appeared in court.
King, McPherson, Napper and Ross, who ve already pleaded not guilty, had their court dates reset for July 6.
Ellis, Ligons and Green were arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Ellis and Green were also set to return to court on July 6. Ligons next court date was scheduled for May 2.
The hearings Monday morning were brief and businesslike, with the defendants saying little, if anything. Most had family members in the large courtroom, and each defendant left after their individual cases were settled.
The judge said he would target July 25, 2011, for the start of the first jury trial. As of now, it appears that each suspect will be tried individually, meaning the trials will likely continue into late summer or early fall.
Last month, Liberty County District Judge Mark Morefield issued a sweeping gag order barring anyone who could be called to testify at the trial from talking to the news media.
The order bars the defendants, attorneys and investigators from disseminating information about the upcoming trial.
It also bars all potential witnesses from discussing the case, including parents, siblings, relatives, and foster parents of the parties involved.
Authorities began investigating the case in December after a friend of the girl told a teacher he had seen a lurid cell phone video that showed the girl being raped.
Police investigators determined it was recorded inside an abandoned mobile home on the city s northern outskirts. The girl told investigators she was raped on Nov. 28, first at a house near the mobile home and then at the trailer.
Indictments in the case allege that before the Nov. 28 attack, the girl also was assaulted on Sept. 15 and Oct. 25. Each of those times, at least two individuals were involved.
The case has prompted outrage from all sides in Cleveland. Some in the town have defended the accused, claiming that the suspects didn t know how old she was and that she dressed provocatively.
Others have noted that an 11-year-old cannot consent to sex no matter how she was dressed.
The age of consent in Texas is 17 and ignorance of a girl s age is not a legal defense.
The remaining six adult suspects were expected to appear in court later Monday.