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Sex crimes trial against former Sheriff Jack Strain shuts down early for severe weather, witnesses continue Thursday

WWL-TV reporters Erika Ferrando and Sam Winstrom are at the Covington Courthouse and will provide updates throughout the day.

COVINGTON, La. — Prosecutors and the defense both presented their opening arguments in the sex crimes trial against former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain on Wednesday.

After two days of jury selection, twelve jurors — six men and six women — were sworn in just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Opening statements began Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.

WWL-TV reporters Erika Ferrando and Sam Winstrom are at the Covington Courthouse and will provide updates throughout the day on the latest proceedings of the trial. 

Live Updates:

Severe weather shuts down opening day of trial 

The opening day of testimony in the trial against former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain ended early Wednesday as the parish braced for a line of severe thunderstorms expected to roll through Southeast Louisiana later in the day. 

Before the recess was called, the jury heard opening statements from both prosecutors and Strain's attorney. 

The state argued that dozens of witnesses would lay out the case over the next two weeks that Strain abused his power to sexually abuse boys for decades. 

In their rebuttal, Strain's defense team contended that many of the star witnesses of the prosecution — sexual assault survivors who allege Strain was the one who molested them — were coerced or pressured by the government to testify against him. 

The jury also heard testimony from the first of 30 planned witnesses against Strain, an IRS special investigator who explained how an audit into alleged money laundering schemes perpetrated by Strain led federal investigators to the sexual abuse allegations against him.  

First witness takes the stand against Strain

The first witness took the stand in the Jack Strain sex crimes trial.

Special Agent Timothy Moore testified Wednesday, explaining how the IRS’s investigation into St Tammany Workforce Solutions, the privately run workforce program at the center of a federal investigation, led to accusations of aggravated rape against Strain.

During his opening statement, assistant district attorney J Collin Sims said that IRS agents “tripped” into the sex crimes investigation.

Moore detailed how he contacted alleged victims of Strain and what they told him.

Strain’s defense attorney Billy Gibbens accused Moore of leading the alleged victims to claim Strain assaulted them in exchange for favorable treatment in any possible prosecution from the federal investigation.

The witness denied that, saying that while the investigations were conducted simultaneously at first, they eventually split up and were handled by the proper authorities.

Trial Day 3: Setting the stage for lengthy questioning of alleged sexual abuse victims

Opening statements in the Jack Strain sex crimes trial ended just before lunch on Wednesday as both attorneys made their case to the jury.

Assistant District Attorney J. Collin Sims spoke first, laying out the state’s case that the former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff used positions of power throughout his life to prey on children. These included his role as a mentor to younger children when he was a teenager, his role as the head of the Strain family and his role as sheriff.

“You want to keep secrets? Make people need you,” Sims said.

Sims plans to have more than 30 witnesses testify to make his case, including five alleged victims, one of whom isn’t included in the charges against strain.

“It’s going to be exhausting,” Sims warned the jury, but said that by the time he’s done they’ll know that (Strain) is a rapist and a child molester. Period.”

Strain’s defense attorney, Billy Gibbens, challenged the alleged victims’ credibility and asked the jury to question their motivation.

He broke down the four alleged victims included in the charges against Strain into two categories: Manipulators and the manipulated.

Gibbens claims two of the men Strain is charged with molesting stand to avoid jail time and even make money for accusing his client. The two other victims were blackmailed by the FBI into accusing Strain, according to Gibbens.

Gibbens claims that the former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff is “a big trophy” for the FBI and that the state took Strain to trial without the evidence necessary to convict.

He even called the prosecution’s long list of witnesses proof that their case doesn’t have merit.

“The stories don’t stand up on their own,” Gibbens said. “The government cannot prove their allegations against Mr. Strain.”

Strain faces four counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated incest, indecent behavior with a juvenile and sexual battery.

The allegations against the former sheriff were unearthed during an investigation into a work-release program under his direction during his time as sheriff.

Strain pleaded not guilty to the alleged incidents that happened as far back as 1975 when Strain was a teenager. The most recent allegations are from the early 2000s when Strain was serving as sheriff.

Strain has been free on bond since his arrest in June 2019 and now faces life in prison if convicted.

The state trial is expected to last up to two weeks, but Strain’s time in court won’t be over.

After this trial, he’s set to face trial in federal court this December for charges related to an alleged kickback scheme at a work release program during his time as sheriff.

Defense to challenge the credibility of accusers

Jack Strain’s defense challenged the credibility of the state’s witnesses during their opening statement, putting them into two categories: Manipulators and the Manipulated.

Defense attorney Billy Gibbens questioned some of the alleged victims' motivations for why they would point the finger at the former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff. He even claims two of them were manipulated and blackmailed by the federal government into saying Strain sexually assaulted them.

Gibbens claims the FBI manipulated alleged victims and didn’t investigate the case as thoroughly as they should have so they could bring down “a big fish” and make Strain another trophy on their shelf.

Prosecutors plan for dozens of witnesses 

The State gave their opening statement in the Jack Strain sex crimes trial Wednesday morning.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, ADA J Collin Sims laid out his case that the former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff took advantage of his power, from the time he was a teenager until he was a powerful politician, to sexually abuse young boys and force them to keep those secrets.

“You want to keep secrets? Make people need you,” Sims said in summary.

Sims plans to have more than 30 witnesses testify to make his case against Strain, including multiple people that claim Strain raped them as children over the course of about 25 years.

Defense attorney Billy Gibbens is set to make his opening statement next after a brief recess.

The Jury:

Before jurors were selected, prosecutors from the district attorney’s office and Strain’s defense attorneys were given the chance to question three panels of potential jurors.

Defense attorney Bill Gibbens focused on weeding out any biases the potential jurors may have against his client, whether it be against his role as a politician, law enforcement officer or the rape accusations made against him.

“We want to make sure everyone is starting with a blank slate,” Gibbens said after introducing himself to potential jurors.

Gibbens made a point of questioning the potential jurors on how they would feel if Strain didn’t testify in his own defense. Since the burden of proof is on the state, Strain is not required to testify during the trial.

Assistant District Attorney J. Collin Sims focused more on the accusations made against Strain and asked potential jurors if they understood the legal definition of those terms, as well as the state’s burden of proving the defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.”

After questioning three panels, both sides and Judge Bruce Simpson agreed on 12 jurors and two alternates.

Case Background:

Strain faces 4 counts of aggravated rape, 2 counts of aggravated incest, indecent behavior with a juvenile, and sexual battery.

The allegations against the former sheriff were unearthed during an investigation into a work-release program under his direction during his time as sheriff.

Strain pleaded not guilty to the alleged incidents that happened as far back as 1975 when Strain was a teenager. The most recent allegations are from the early 2000s when Strain was serving as sheriff.

Strain has been free on bond since his arrest in June 2019 and now faces life in prison if convicted.

The trial will take place at the 22nd Judicial Courthouse in Covington under retired Lafourche Parish Judge Bruce Simpson. Every other Northshore judge was recused from the case.

The state trial is expected to last up to two weeks but Strain’s time in court won’t be over.

After this trial, he’s set to face trial in federal court this December for charges related to an alleged kickback scheme at a work release program during his time as sheriff.

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