Former Lenoir City pastor loses bid to overturn sex assault conviction

Knoxville News Sentinel [Knoxville TN]

October 26, 2022

By Liz Kellar

The Knox County judge who presided over the trial of a pastor convicted of repeatedly raping his adopted daughter has refused to overturn his ruling. The man’s attorney has filed an appeal.

David Richards was convicted in 2019 on charges including rape, incest and sexual battery by an authority figure. The Knox County Criminal Court trial pitted Richards against his adopted daughter Amber, an adult when the trial started. Knox News typically does not identify victims in sexual abuse cases, but Amber Richards agreed to be named after the trial.

Richards, who was sentenced by Judge Steven Sword to 12 years in prison, sought a new trial. But after a multiday hearing, Sword signaled very clearly he had not been swayed from his belief that Amber Richards told the truth.

Sword reaffirmed Richards’ conviction in a 30-page ruling, but attorney Stephen Ross Jenkins wasted no time by filing an appeal the same day. Jenkins declined to comment on the substance of the appeal, but said he plans to file the appellant brief soon.

Allegations of sex abuse spanned several years

David Richards, a former minister at My Father’s House Church of God in Lenoir City, and his then-wife took in Amber and her three biological siblings as foster children in 2008, then adopted Amber and her older sister. Amber Richards was 16 in 2013 when she first reported the abuse, which she said began with being inappropriately touched two years earlier and progressed to being repeatedly raped.

At trial, David Richards described himself as a divorced, single dad simply trying to rein in a defiant teen. Amber Richards painted him as a vindictive manipulator who punished her when she spurned his offer to take their relationship “to the next level.” Little physical evidence existed and in the end it came down to the jury believing Amber’s testimony over that of her adoptive father.

Richards’ attorney has substantial experience appealing wrongful convictions. Johnson helped found the Tennessee Innocence Project, was involved in the Tennessee Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act of 2001 and helped establish the procedures in Tennessee for bringing newly discovered evidence claims.  

His appeal argument for Richards was three-pronged: New evidence that wasn’t heard at trial, undisclosed evidence that could help his client, and the claim that his previous attorney, Gregg Harrison, was incompetent.

Judge found little evidence to support new trial

Sword’s ruling came as no surprise since he took the time after the voluminous evidence presented by Johnson to tell Amber Richards “the jury believed you and I believed you, and I still do.”

After Johnson’s closing argument, the judge said he would take his time sifting through the lengthy testimony, noting he expected his decision to be appealed.

In his ruling, Sword again highlighted Amber Richards’ testimony, calling it consistent and “extremely compelling.”

Sword went through the claims of ineffective representation of counsel, finding Harrison to have met the standard of using reasonable strategies on a number of issues including electronic and DNA evidence. Sword did note the failure of Richards’ attorney to investigate the credibility of the DNA expert as being a “closer call,” but found the DNA evidence was not a smoking gun and would not have changed the outcome of the trial. Similarly, the judge found that none of the evidence presented as newly discovered would have changed the end result of the trial.