Victims testify on first day of rape, kidnapping trial

BEAUFORT -- As he pulled into a parking lot near Beaufort High School almost three years ago, a Tennessee man thought he and his wife were moments from safety, the man recalled Tuesday in a Beaufort County courtroom.

The couple had been abducted by two men at gun- and knifepoint from the BB&T parking lot in downtown Beaufort and robbed of more than $900 in cash they were forced to withdraw from an ATM on Lady's Island. The man said he started to feel better about their chances of surviving when the men ordered the couple out of their silver Lexus sedan near the school's football stadium.

"I thought they were going to take the car and drive off," he said. "That's not what happened."

The man's testimony was part of the state's case against Alphonso Howard, a 36-year-old St. Helena man on trial on rape, kidnapping and car-jacking charges. He faces up to 150 years in jail if convicted of all charges.

Investigators say Howard and Lorenzo Hicks, 25, kidnapped and robbed the couple before taking them to a wooded area near Beaufort High School, where police say Howard sexually assaulted the woman after blindfolding her husband and binding his hands with his own belt.

Police say the man escaped and ran to a nearby home, where he called 911.

Howard and Hicks were arrested that night and have since awaited trial at the Beaufort County Detention Center.

"Simple, innocent choices made that day -- where to go to eat, how long to stay at the restaurant -- put them at the wrong place at the wrong time," deputy solicitor Angela McCall-Tanner said of the victims in her opening statement.

During his opening statement, Howard's court-appointed lawyer, Jim Brown, urged the jury not to rely on the state's "contaminated and manipulated" DNA evidence and sought to discredit Howard's co-defendant, Lorenzo Hicks, who agreed Monday to plead guilty to car-jacking, kidnapping and armed robbery in exchange for testifying against Howard. Brown called Hicks "severally mentally ill" and "borderline mentally retarded."

The prosecution introduced more than 25 pieces of evidence Tuesday and called eight witnesses to the stand, including the woman Howard is accused of sexually assaulting. She tearfully and painstakingly recalled the events of that night for the jury.

Brown, in his cross examination, centered on the couple's inability to positively identify Howard as their assailant. The couple claimed they were ordered not to look at the men during the attack, and the darkness further obscured their faces.

McCall-Tanner said she intends to call more than 10 witnesses to the stand today -- including Lorenzo Hicks -- to round out the state's case.