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End of innocence

An 8-year-old alleges rape. A 15-year-old faces 25 years. Could two children’s lives be ruined by a flawed system?

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There's no room to dispute that in 2007, something terrible happened to the young girl who lives at the end of a quiet street off Jonesboro Road.

It was mid-September. A new school year was in its infancy and summer was passing away, reluctantly loosening its stranglehold on the scorching-hot streets of South Atlanta. The girl – then just 8 years old – should have had her mind occupied with kid stuff. Instead, and against her will, she was learning what it means to be an object of sexual desire.

According to police-conducted interviews, the girl told her cousins, ages 8 and 11, that a 15-year-old neighbor who occasionally baby-sat for the family had put his "thing" in her. Rather than tell their grandmother, the little boys decided they'd hatch a plot to catch the baby sitter themselves. On Sept. 14, 2007, or so they later told police, one hid in a closet and the other under a bed. They instructed their female counterpart to lie facedown on the bed, live bait to lure her alleged transgressor.

The children would later say their plan worked.

By their telling, the baby sitter came into the room and lifted his leg in an attempt to get on top of the little girl. Before he could do anything besides "touch her butt," the boys burst out of their respective hiding places and dragged him off of her. Police were called the following day. Eight days later, the 15-year-old neighbor was arrested on charges of aggravated child molestation, statutory rape and sexual battery, and was booked into juvenile detention.

Investigators with the Atlanta Police Department's Child Exploitation Unit treated it as an open-and-shut case. A little girl claimed she'd been raped, two children in the household attested to what they believed was an attempted assault, and a subsequent physical examination of the little girl revealed evidence of sexual abuse. And she hadn't wavered in her identification of a suspect: Her teenage baby sitter, Jason Pratt.

But many in the community where Pratt lived say they have reason to doubt that he's responsible for the crimes perpetrated against their young neighbor. They've argued that the APD – in its apparent haste to close the case – ignored an important fact.

At the time of the little girl's alleged rape, and for several years prior to that outcry, her grandmother's boyfriend, Michael Grissom, was living with the family. The problem: Grissom is a registered sex offender. Documents filed by Pratt's attorney note that Grissom was convicted several years earlier of molesting another family member, his girlfriend's then-12-year-old niece.

It's also questionable whether his presence in the household was legal. An address verification performed by the Fulton County Sheriff's Department in 2007 indicated that the residence was closer than 1,000 feet (the distance dictated by Georgia's sex offender statute) from a nearby park. According to neighbors, Grissom moved out of the house just days after word of the abuse broke, and within weeks, he'd re-registered at a new address not far from there.

District Attorney Paul Howard says his office hasn't detected any inappropriate contact Grissom might have had with the victim and that his office's investigation into the case hasn't revealed any reason why Grissom should be treated as a suspect. "There is no evidence that [Grissom] had any involvement with this little girl," Howard said in an interview with CL. "We investigated him being at an improper address, but there's no indication that he's involved in this case."

That's not good enough for residents of South Atlanta, many of whom know and love Pratt, a boy they describe as "soft-spoken," "honest" and "gentle." Also troubling to members of the community is the fact that Howard is trying Pratt in adult court, despite the fact that he was 15 years old at the time of the alleged incident and has no juvenile criminal record of which to speak.

If convicted as an "adult," Pratt faces a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.

Carrie Amestoy describes South Atlanta as an "old-school" black neighborhood. Its residents aren't segregated by choice, necessarily, but by economics. As far as she knows, she's the only white woman in the neighborhood, and certainly one of few residents with the means to renovate an early-20th century home's interior to resemble a modern art gallery. She bought her house in 2005, and instantly had a friend in a young neighbor.

"I fell in love with the child who lived across the street when he was 12 years old," Amestoy says of Pratt, whose family's modest home sits diagonal to her own. "He's basically part of my family."

Pratt was a regular in Amestoy's house. His mother, Cynthia Pratt, was raising two other children, her eldest child Nikki and Jason's twin brother Joshua. By Cynthia's own admission, when she wasn't at work, she was usually at church. As a result, Jason often ate meals with Amestoy and her roommates, he regularly watched TV and used the computer at her house (he had access to neither in his own home), and occasionally he spent the night on her sofa if he happened to fall asleep. He refers to her as his "godmother."

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