As Murray County Sheriff’s Office deputies escorted convicted child molester Diego Martin Pena of White, Ga. into Murray County Superior Court last week, a sense of anticipation hung in the air. Legal wags predicted a harsh punishment for the man who abused and impregnated a local child.
That’s what happened. Yet it could have been much worse, had Murray County Chief Superior Court Judge William T. Boyett not shown mercy.
Judge Boyett sentenced Pena to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole followed by life on probation for aggravated child molestation, with concurrent 15-year sentences on the child molestation and statutory rape charges on which he was convicted in October.
Pena was eligible to be sentenced to life in prison on the aggravated child molestation charge plus up to 20 years on each of the child molestation and statutory rape charges.
The investigation and presentation of evidence - led by Murray County Sheriff Office Detective Brett Morrison and Murray County Assistant District Attorney Ben Kennemer - began in 2012 and detailed abuse that occurred as early as 2008 when the victim was just 11 years old.
"We are appreciative of Detective Morrison and the Murray County Sheriff's Office for following up on new leads even though it had been a closed case and the victim was no longer living in the State of Georgia,” said Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston. “Without that extra effort, Mr. Pena would not have faced justice for his actions.”
Murray County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jimmy Davenport also commended the efforts of Assistant D.A. Kennemer and Detective Morrison.
“It would have been very easy to let this case remain cold,” said Davenport. “Detective Morrison did more than was expected of him, and it shows the dedication of both the MCSO and the District Attorney’s Office Murray County in serving our citizens and pursuing justice to the very end.”
In 2012, reports from Murray County Schools officials prompted investigators to interview the victim, who was pregnant at the time. It was believed at the time that a classmate of similar age was the father.
According to Davenport, MCSO investigators were later contacted by the victim’s father and discovered that Pena was paying child support payments to the victim. Detective Morrison flew immediately to Oregon where the victim was then living and re-interviewed her, where she admitted that inappropriate contact had occurred.
Paternity testing in 2014 revealed that Pena was actually the father of the child, which prompted the MCSO to officially re-open its investigation. DNA was secured from Pena, the victim and the child which was submitted to the Georgia State Crime Lab in 2015. Testing proved that Pena was the father of a child born to the victim in 2012 or 2013 and an indictment was then sought.
The trial before a Murray County jury lasted several days and ended in late October. Pena was found guilty after hearing from a total of three witnesses for the state, including the victim and a DNA expert from the Georgia State Crime Lab.
During the trial, defense attorney Tom West was quoted in local news reports as saying that “if there was any sexual contact, it was while [Pena] was in a coma. “His mother-in-law testified she was sleeping on the sofa and looked down and seen the girl had climbed on top of Pena and was having sex with him,” West was quoted as saying. “She tried to wake him up and he could not be ... . It turned out that was nine months before the birth of the child.”
Following sentencing, Pena was remanded back into the custody of the Murray County Sheriff’s Department and will now be integrated into the Georgia state prison system.