There’s been several twists in the trials of Michael Bowling, the 48-year-old Bunnell man accused of molesting a 15-year-old girl during a sleepover, not least December’s mistrial. Bowling is on trial again on the same charges this week.
The latest twist developed Wednesday afternoon as the defense decided to impeach one of its own witnesses: Bowling’s former step-daughter, whom the alleged victim was visiting that night in 2016 at a Mondex mobile home.
Bill Bookhammer, the assistant public defender representing Bowling, was seeking to treat the step-daughter as a hostile witness as he aimed to show her to be so inconsistent that she couldn’t keep her stories straight.
Neither the alleged victim nor the step-daughter have been very consistent in their testimonies. The alleged victim, now 18, testified on Tuesday. But there’s a vast difference between inconsistencies and lies. The two witnesses have been put through interviews with child-abuse investigators, through depositions, hearings, and now two trials, their accounts of incidents almost three years old accumulating in stacks of transcribed words that, in the defense’s hands, can and have been held against them the moment they appear to differ in the slightest details.
And eyewitness accounts are by nature fraught with inconsistencies that usually have nothing to do with malice and everything to do with the treachery of memory, especially adolescent memory–something akin to the so-called Rashomon effect. A jury isn’t necessarily familiar with those nuances and may be more susceptible to the disproportionate weight a lawyer gives discrepancies, no matter how irrelevant those discrepancies may be to the root of the case. To that end, Bowling’s lawyer has been effective.
The defense’s strategy is to paint the two girls as conspirators in a lie designed to make Bowling look like a molester in order to stop him from taking the family back to Kentucky, where he and his step-daughter’s family were originally from. The step-daughter didn’t want to go back to Kentucky because she was involved with her boyfriend locally, and leaving Flagler would, in one of the words she used and that Bookhammer plucked out of the reams of transcribed testimonies, “devastate” her.
At the heart of the case is the July sleep-over. The alleged victim was visiting the stepdaughter. The two were in the stepdaughter’s room that evening after the stepdaughter’s biological mother went to sleep. Bowling walked in and decided to play with the girls–cards, at first. To make it interesting, he allegedly turned the game into truth or dare, though it was all dares. The loser would have to do something the others want him to do. Both the alleged victim and the stepdaughter say Bowling dared the victim to lift up her shirt several times–first with a bra on, then without. The girl said she finally did so because she felt pressured. Then a game of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” was proposed. It was never clear by whom. That entailed two people spending seven minutes in a dark closet. The alleged victim ended up in the closet with Bowling, twice, where Bowling allegedly touched her breast with his mouth or his hand, and where he masturbated, holding her head and ejaculating on her arm and the wall.
The stepdaughter testified Wednesday that she tried to open the closet door but was repeatedly rebuffed by her stepfather who closed it again–and that she also tried to turn on the light inside the closet, but that Bowling would slip his hand out and turn it off. That’s one of the inconsistencies Bookhammer was highlighting: the alleged victim never mentioned a light coming on in the closet, just darkness, nor her friend trying to pry the door open, just Bowling going about his assault and asking her “where do you want me to put it when I’m finished?”
The girls also differ in their accounts as to what other dares may have been in play, where a bottle of champagne may have been during the night, who drank from the champagne, and other such discrepancies. Bowling in December testified that he’d wanted to spend time with his daughter because he was trying to pry information out of her or her friend about where his daughter may have “flashed” her breasts, and where there might be an image of those breasts on the Internet–even though his step-daughter testified that that incident had been resolved long before the sleepover: she had admitted to doing the flashing, and the matter was put to rest. Bookhammer, however, seized on timeline issues as the stepdaughter once on Wednesday said the matter had taken place a year before the sleepover, only to concede that it had taken place perhaps closer to a month before it–again,a chance for Bookhammer to make her look less than truthful, though on a point that had nothing to do with the accusations against Bowling, except to deflect from them and turn the table on his accusers.
The defense’s strategy is itself fraught with holes and inconsistencies: the defense never explained in the December trial, nor did it in Bookhammer’s opening argument this week, why the alleged victim waited several weeks, until she went back to school, to report the alleged incident to a school counselor. The defense has not been able to explain why the two girls would collude on such a drastic accusation if, as the stepdaughter testified repeatedly Wednesday, Bowling had no power to take the family back to Kentucky anyway, so long as the daughter’s mother didn’t want to leave Flagler. And the daughter’s mother testified that she did not.
“I wasn’t even worried about us leaving,” the step-daughter testified Wednesday. “I wasn’t worried that he would take us out of florida.” The night of the alleged incident, the friend told the step-daughter she didn’t want to talk about it, and the two friends parted ways weeks afterward, with the friend blaming the stepdaughter for what had taken place that night.
The more the step-daughter testified Wednesday, the more she was making the state’s case, which may have led to Bookhammer’;s decision to turn her–his own witness–into an adversarial witness.
There is yet another twist in the undercurrent of this trial: the step-daughter’s own history with Bowling. She has accused him of raping her since she was a young child. Those allegations are to be tried at a subsequent trial, but they very much became part of the first trial in December–and made a mess of it, because that trial then lost its focus from the charge by the friend and turned into a side trial about the step-daughter’s veracity. The hung jury reflected either that confusion or the sense that the stepdaughter’s own story was not believable.
This time, the stepdaughter’s allegations are barred from the trial, and neither side opened that door. So the focus has been more narrow–on the alleged incidents during the card playing and in the closet.
And on the state’s most solid piece of hard evidence: a DNA sample of Bowling’s sperm, found on the wall of his stepdaughter’s closet. When interviewed by a detective about that stain, Bowling had said it couldn’t possibly be there. But when he testified about it last December, he launched into the elaborate story of an amorous encounter with his wife in the closet, resulting in the human stain. His wife testified she’d never engaged in a sexual act in that closet. But whatever the truth may be, the jury could not agree one way or the other, and a mistrial was declared.
Bowling is expected to testify again at this trial, likely today.