The Newton County courthouse in August 2016. (Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Man serving life says DNA clears him; not so fast, says prosecutor

For the past 27 years, Ronald Jacobsen has been serving a life sentence for kidnapping a woman from a Newton County convenience store and then beating and sexually assaulting her on a two-hour drive down I-20.

Ronald Jacobsen, who is now 56. (Department of Corrections)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A DNA test now shows, however, that Jacobsen did not commit the crime, Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer for the Innocence Project, told a judge on Tuesday. GBI tests show that male DNA from the woman’s rape kit could not have come from Jacobsen, she said, and she is asking the court to grant Jacobsen a new trial.

But District Attorney Layla Zon opposed the motion, arguing that the DNA results don’t prove Jacobsen’s innocence. Zon said trial testimony showed that Jacobsen was the man who kidnapped the 21-year-old convenience store clerk on Jan. 6, 1990.

The arguments did little to settle a central question of the case from the start: Jacobsen and the victim had had a relationship before the kidnapping, so she would have had little trouble identifying him. But the woman initially told investigators she had no idea who her assailant was.

Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Zon argued Tuesday that the DNA brought forward by the Innocence Project could have come from a man with whom the victim had consensual sex not long before the assault. As a result, she said, the test results are inadmissible under the Rape Shield Act, which prohibits evidence of a rape victim’s sexual history.

Potkin countered that there is no question the woman was sexually assaulted during her abduction. But the DNA results go to the heart of the case — the identity of the assailant, she said.

“We’re not saying the sperm comes from a prior boyfriend,” Potkin said. “We’re saying the sperm comes from the rapist.”

Superior Court Judge Eugene Benton asked both sides to submit legal briefs to him within 30 days.

Jacobsen, 56, wearing a tan prison jumpsuit and a gray goatee, showed little emotion. He has always maintained his innocence.

In early 1990, Jacobsen was an auto mechanic who lived in Decatur. He and the victim had just ended a month-long relationship. Jacobsen also had a girlfriend in Chattanooga who was pregnant with his child.

According to court records, the victim told police she was kidnapped from a Golden Pantry in Newton County where she worked the night shift. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not disclose the names of sexual assault victims.)

The man entered the store at about 4 a.m. and bought some Marlboro Lights, the woman said. As she was handing over his change, he walked around the counter, and struck her in the head, causing a gash.

He dragged her to a pickup truck and began driving on I-20, forcing her to perform oral sex on him as they sped along, she said. He stopped at several exits, where he repeatedly raped and sodomized her. The woman said he beat her with his fists and a flashlight and told her he’d kill her if she screamed or didn’t satisfy him.

Her attacker’s pickup ran out of gas, so he pulled into an I-20 emergency lane, she said. The woman said she had just given Jacobsen $4 for gas when a man drove up and asked whether they needed help. Her attacker then got in that car, which drove away, the woman said.

After the car disappeared from view, the woman climbed over a fence, ran down a hill and began banging on the windows of a house. A man who appeared at the door let her in and called police.

Over the next few days, on at least three occasions, the woman told police she had never seen the man who’d abducted and sexually assaulted her. In a recorded interview hours after being attacked, the woman told police she’d asked the man, “What did I do to you? I don’t even know you.”

Local authorities later consulted with a GBI behavioral scientist, who said the woman was likely traumatized after the attack and would eventually identify her assailant. Questioned again, the woman said Jacobsen, then 29, was the man.

At trial, she explained why she initially balked at identifying him. “Because I was scared that if I did … he would come and kill me like he said,” she testified.

The woman’s testimony was buttressed by 70-year-old Bob Knight, who was in the Golden Pantry when the woman’s attacker entered at 4 a.m.

Knight said he asked the woman if she knew the man who’d walked into the store. Knight said he left the Golden Pantry when she told him the man was a former boyfriend.

Knight would later identify Jacobsen as the man who entered the store shortly before the woman’s abduction.

On Tuesday, however, Potkin noted that police used a highly suggestive and improper method of getting Knight to identify Jacobsen. They showed Knight a single photo of Jacobsen and of no one else, she said.

Jacobsen, who took the stand at trial, testified he’d spent the night of the attack in Chattanooga at his girlfriend’s home.

“I didn’t do it,” he said. “How can I be two places at once when I’m 150 miles away?”

Jacobsen’s defense produced witnesses who confirmed that he was in Chattanooga.

But John Ott, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, poked some holes in Jacobsen’s alibi testimony.

“The victim is just flat-out wrong,” Ott told jurors during his closing argument. “Everything is just wrong, and he’s the only one who’s telling the truth, and yet up on that stand you saw him lie.”

Ott is now a Superior Court judge for Newton and Walton counties. On Tuesday, he declined to comment on the motion.

Zon, the present DA, said the victim was in her office during Tuesday’s court hearing. “She maintains 100 percent, without any question, he did this to her,” she said.

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