Beaufort News

Port Royal church welcomes accused member into congregation

People interested in a preliminary hearing for Joel Iacopelli gather outside Beaufort County Magistrate Court the morning of Aug. 14, 2015.
People interested in a preliminary hearing for Joel Iacopelli gather outside Beaufort County Magistrate Court the morning of Aug. 14, 2015. Staff photo

In the wake of an allegation against a Sunday school volunteer by a 4-year-old girl, Port Royal's Community Bible Church installed cameras in each of the classrooms in its classroom building, the church's attorney said Monday.

A charge of criminal sexual conduct with a minor under the age of 11 was dropped against Joel Iacopelli, 44, by Beaufort County Magistrate Court Judge Richard Brooks on Thursday. That decision followed an Aug. 14 preliminary hearing to determine probable cause.

Daniel Denton, the church's attorney, confirmed on Monday that 28 cameras were installed.

He also said church members had welcomed Iacopelli back into the church "with open arms."

Denton, who is not a member of the church, said the congregation never believed Iacopelli was guilty.

Denton said Pastor Carl Broggi would not comment until the case is dropped by the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

Through Denton, however, Broggi said Iacopelli is in good standing with the church, continues to be a member and attends services.

Despite the decision by Brooks to dismiss the charge, the case remains under investigation by the Solicitor's Office, Solicitor Duffie Stone said Monday. Stone said Friday it could be taken to a grand jury if further evidence is gathered and analyzed.

Stone said Monday he has not decided whether to present the case to the grand jury and whether he will prosecute the case.

Iacopelli was charged July 10. He was accused of touching a child inappropriately June 28.

During the preliminary hearing, Port Royal Police Department's Chief Investigator Robert Bilyard testified that the child's story changed several times after she made the allegation to her mother.

Stone said Friday it is not unusual for a child's story to change after he or she is confronted by adults.

According to state law, the testimony of victims involved in alleged sexual conduct does not need to be corroborated.

Colin Miller, a professor of law and associate dean of faculty at the University of South Carolina, said Monday prosecutors usually want more evidence available to show corroboration, even though they do not have to under state law.

During a search of Iacopelli's home shortly after his arrest, investigators collected computers, home security footage, an iPad and his cell phone. The cell phone was the only piece of evidence that had come back from testing by the time of the preliminary hearing. It yielded nothing of evidentiary value, Bilyard testified.

The child's clothes were also collected a day after the incident. Results are not back on those items.

Miller, who teaches criminal law, criminal adjudication and evidence at USC, said a low burden of proof is needed to issue an arrest warrant.

The arrest warrant, signed by Brooks, the same judge who dismissed the case, needed only a "strong suspicion" that the allegation was true, Miller said.

Miller said probable cause may lead police to get an arrest warrant, but the prosecution can disagree because it cannot prove the allegation at trial based on the evidence.

"Best practice is to find corroborating evidence before making an arrest," Miller said.

However, Miller said it is rare for cases to be thrown out after a preliminary hearing. He said approximately 90 percent of preliminary hearings go to trial.

When asked to explain the process of how charges were filed against Iacopelli, Stone declined comment on Monday.

Stone, who said the last four of his five most recent trials involved child testimony, said the Solicitor's Office must sometimes make early judgment calls.

"If there's an arrest and we are wrong, we do not prosecute," Stone said. "If we do nothing and we are wrong, another child gets molested."

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