As featured in the article “Minister convicted of girl’s rape must pay $1M” by The Daily Report’s Mark Niesse:

A Walton County jury has awarded more than $1 million to a woman who was 15 years old when a youth minister at her church began having sex with her.

The jury held the defendant, Brian Gray, responsible for statutory rape and abusing his position of authority to manipulate the plaintiff into a relationship, said the plaintiff’s attorney, Lloyd Hoffspiegel.

Collecting the Nov. 7 verdict might be more difficult than winning at trial.

Gray, who was 31 years old at the beginning of the relationship, is serving a 15-year sentence for child molestation, statutory rape and related crimes, according to the Department of Corrections. Hoffspiegel said he will speak with Gray’s family members and investigate other avenues for collecting the verdict.

The plaintiff, now 18 years old, felt vindicated regardless of how much money she’ll recover, Hoffspiegel said.

“She had been told she was wrong and she had sinned, and her parents knew that wasn’t right. They wanted a larger community to tell them they were doing the right thing,” he said.

The nondenominational church where Gray worked as a volunteer, Monroe Church of Christ, settled with the woman for about $30,000, Hoffspiegel said. A phone message left at the church seeking comment was not returned.

Gray’s three-day trial became a fight over damages after Alcovy Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge John Ott issued a directed verdict for the plaintiff on liability.

Ott found that the plaintiff couldn’t have consented to sex because she was younger than 16 years old, and Gray was a Sunday school teacher in a position of authority covered by Georgia’s sexual assault statute, O.C.G.A. § 16-6 5.1, Hoffspiegel said. Ott also granted a plaintiff’s motion in limine precluding the defendant from claiming the plaintiff’s parents were negligent.

Gray’s attorney in the suit, W. Charles Lea, didn’t return phone messages or an email seeking comment.

When Gray testified, he said his relationship with the plaintiff started after a November 2009 car accident that partially paralyzed his wife and killed his 2-year-old daughter, Hoffspiegel said.

“Their argument was basically that money wasn’t going to make this better, and he had had a tremendous loss, and he just wasn’t himself,” Hoffspiegel said. “It wasn’t very effective. The jury was very poker-faced. You could tell that was falling on deaf ears.”

The jury awarded $900,000 in general damages, $125,000 in punitive damages and about $9,000 in medical expenses.

Gray began his pursuit of the plaintiff with a series of “childish but flirtatious” actions such as blowing a straw down her blouse, making inappropriate comments and touching her behind, Hoffspiegel said.

When Gray tried to kiss her, she started crying and backed away. Gray apologized, but a few weeks later he put on a “fullcourt press” of emails, texts messages and phone calls, Hoffspiegel said.

She willingly had sexual intercourse in his house in January 2010, but she wasn’t able to consent legally to the act because she was 15 years old, Hoffspiegel said. The plaintiff turned 16 during their 10-month relationship, but their relationship was still improper because he was her teacher.

Gray’s wife tutored the plaintiff in math, and the plaintiff would at times stay the night at their house. Gray would visit her in the night, the lawyer said.

“She tried several times to end the relationship with him, and he would just not relent. He would keep telling her how much his life was awful and how much he needed her,” Hoffspiegel said.

The plaintiff became depressed, started cutting herself and stopped attending school.

She told her mother that she was having sex with Gray and couldn’t seem to stop him or persuade him to leave her alone. The mother confronted Gray and told him he’d go to jail if he ever touched her again, but he didn’t let up.

The plaintiff confided in her best friend, who then revealed that she, too, was in a relationship with Gray, Hoffspiegel said.

Soon after her mother told church elders about Gray’s behavior, he inadvertently turned himself in by telling one of his wife’s counselors about his relationship, who then told the authorities.

Following Gray’s arrest, the church elders asked the plaintiff to appear in front of the congregation and confess to being an adulteress, because she should have known not to have sex with a married man, regardless of her age, Hoffspiegel said.

The day before trial, Hoffspiegel prepared his soft-spoken client by sitting her down in the courtroom.

“I was worried about her not even showing up, because she had been so anxious about testifying against the church, and it was hard to get her engaged in much of a conversation beforehand,” Hoffspiegel said. “When it was time for her to testify, she was surprisingly confident and strong. You knew you had a young woman there who felt she had been wronged.”

A clinical psychologist testifying as an expert witness for plaintiff, Danielle Levy, said Gray had engaged in a grooming process that targeted victims he thought were vulnerable, lacked self-confidence and wouldn’t turn him in.

When Gray took the stand, he said he had suffered memory loss during the car accident and didn’t remember how many times he and the plaintiff had sexual relations or what the meaning of “pedophile” was.

Hoffspiegel showed the jury a letter that a psychiatrist had written for Gray when he sought a sentence reduction. The letter said Gray had been involved in sexual relations with the “promiscuous” plaintiff because of the accident.

“After pleading guilty to this horrible crime, he was still blaming the victim,” Hoffspiegel said.

During his closing, Hoffspiegel told the jury that Gray’s actions caused the plaintiff to drop out of school, go through therapy and struggle to get a job.

He said it was important that the jury understood the woman was recovering and moving on. “The jury didn’t want to hear that she’s going to be stuck forever,” he said.

Hoffspiegel said he expects to be awarded attorney fees because he made an offer of judgment for $250,000 that wasn’t accepted by the defense.

The case number of the suit is 11-SU-CV-2051-2.

This article was the featured headline in the Wednesday November 21, 2012 edition of The Daily Report.