OTTAWA — A young woman whose testimony 13 years ago helped convict a Columbus Grove man of rape returned to a Putnam County courtroom Wednesday to recant her earlier allegations.
Gwen Blevins, now 18, spent more than four hours on the witness stand in a hearing centered around a motion for a new trial filed by defense attorneys representing Robert Tebelman.
On April 8, 2009, Tebelman, now 38, was convicted by a Putnam County jury on a charge of rape when the victim — Blevins — was less than 10 years of age. He was sentenced April 13 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. An appellate court upheld that sentence.
Blevins, then 5, was a principal witness and testified at Tebelman’s trial. She reportedly told her grandmother about objects, including fingers, that Tebelman — her mother’s boyfriend at the time — had put into her anus and vagina on or about Nov. 4, 2008, at a Columbus Grove residence.
According to her own testimony on Wednesday, the woman knew even as a child that the statements she made at trial were not true but were the result of family pressure to speak out. Over the years the effects of her testimony took the form of mental health issues and self-mutilation, she said.
Blevins testified Wednesday that in 2008 her guilt was so pervasive that she told a mental health counselor her trial testimony was not correct. That started a series of self-hearing steps that led to Wednesday’s hearing.
“This has been very, very hard. I started to contemplate suicide … a lot,” Blevins said of her life in the years after the trial. “I believed I didn’t deserve to live anymore. I still feel guilty every single day. I am still in a dark place.”
She testified that she told an investigator hired by Tebelman’s defense team she was never sexually assaulted by the defendant, whom she still considers a father figure.
“He was my dad. He treated me like a princess. I’d give him a hug right now if I could,” she said of Tebelman.
Upon questioning by defense attorney Kimberly Corral, Blevins said she had not been coached or coerced to recant her earlier statements. Corral said Bevins came forward “on her own to recant her testimony” and that the defense team has “found Miss Blevins to be forthright and genuine. We believe this entire hearing turns on her credibility.”
Assistant Putnam County Prosecutor Todd Schroeder agreed … to a point.
“The heart of this issue is: which version of events is the most credible; the one in 2008 and 2009 or the one we may hear today? A jury of 12 people heard the actual evidence and they convicted (Tebelman) because he was guilty.”
Schroeder repeatedly questioned Blevins about incidents that occurred when the young woman was 4 or 5 years old. In almost each instance his questions drew responses of “I don’t know” or “I don’t recall.”
At one point, when discussing an affidavit Blevins had signed following her interview with a defense investigator, Schroeder asked if she was aware of the possible penalties for making false statements under oath.
Corral objected and said Schroeder was threatening the witness with prosecution. Following a sidebar session behind closed doors Judge Keith Schierloh discussed with Blevins her right to have an attorney present during questioning to protect her constitutional rights. Blevins, who had been fighting to retain her composure and was fighting back tears, agreed to proceed.
Schroeder repeatedly noted that Blevins, in the years since Tebelman’s trial, has had ample opportunity to review trial testimony from medical experts to see if testimony surrounding injuries to her anus and vagina, described at trial as likely to have been caused by sexual trauma, would cause her to rethink her change of heart.
“It wouldn’t impact what I know is true,” Blevins replied.
Several more witnesses are expected to be called to testify in the hearing, including Blevins’ therapist who is currently on vacation.
Schierloh said the hearing will resume sometime in February.