NEW YORK – A former juvenile-justice worker accused of brazenly using his job to prey on underage girls inside a courthouse was convicted Friday of molesting two teens but acquitted of raping a third.
Tony Simmons' case had sparked protests from women's advocates, prompted a judge to rescind a plea deal and brought sometimes uncomfortably frank testimony from Simmons' three accusers. After being poised to emerge from the case with probation this fall, Simmons now could face up to four years in prison at his sentencing, set for Feb. 1.
Simmons, 47, was led off to jail to await sentencing after hearing the jury verdict. The sequential "guilty" findings at times were almost drowned out by wails from one of Simmons' relatives before court officers ushered her out of the room.
His accusers testified that Simmons abruptly began fondling them after taking them aside in the Manhattan Family Court building in separate incidents between 2005 and 2008. At the time, the girls were 15 and 16, under the age of sexual consent in New York. Simmons' lawyer depicted them as troubled girls who made the allegations hoping to get out of custody or get a lawsuit payout.
"Obviously, he's disappointed" in the verdict and will explore appealing it, lawyer Gregory Watford said.
But women's rights activists hailed the conviction as an important victory for sexual assault victims.
"Simmons targeted these girls precisely because he thought they were not in a position to stand up for themselves and that no one would believe them," said Sonia Ossorio, the executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Today a jury proved him wrong."
The case had sparked an outcry from NOW and the district attorney after Simmons pleaded guilty to rape and other charges in September and was promised a no-jail sentence. A judge nixed the deal in November.
Jurors declined to discuss the verdict, delivered after less than a day of deliberations.
As a $37,000-a-year counselor with the city Department of Juvenile Justice, Simmons was tasked with bringing juvenile offenders to court and supervising them there.
"Instead, he abused the authority of his position to sexually assault girls in a situation where they were most vulnerable," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement Friday.
One girl testified that Simmons made advances that ended with her performing oral sex on him in a locker area. Another said he groped her in a kitchen after asking her to help him unload a cooler of food. Simmons "is a nasty dog. I have to get out of here," she wrote in a note to a female worker shortly afterward.
A third said Simmons raped her in a courthouse elevator. But jurors acquitted Simmons of those charges.
"The jury obviously found reasonable doubt with regard to (her) testimony," said his lawyer, who had assailed all the allegations as tainted by ulterior motives.
The accusers who described encounters in the locker room and kitchen were desperate to get out of juvenile facilities, Watford said. The third woman was trying to reap millions of dollars in a lawsuit against the city, he said.
Simmons didn't testify at his trial. Before his guilty plea was scrubbed, he told probation interviewers the girls had enticed him, according to state Supreme Court Justice Cassandra Mullen, who initially approved and then nixed his plea and promise of 10 years' probation. She said she changed her mind because Simmons showed a "disturbing" lack of remorse during the interviews.
Vance had blasted the probation deal as "outrageously lenient," the Daily News had scorned it in an editorial, and NOW members and others had demonstrated outside the courthouse.
Jurors heard nothing about the guilty plea, which had been voided. Another Supreme Court judge, Carol Berkman, presided over the trial.
Simmons was suspended and then assigned to desk duty after the allegations emerged in July 2008, authorities said. He resigned in September as the Juvenile Justice Department was moving to fire him, the agency said.
(This version CORRECTS A new approach. Adds context, defense lawyer saying Simmons is disappointed in verdict and will explore appeal; National Organization for Women official hailing verdict, district attorney saying Simmons abused his authority and girls were vulnerable, adds information on possible sentence; edits to trim. Corrects plea deal rescinded in November, not last month.)
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