Jury convicts Uber driver of raping passenger

Marc Freeman Sun Sentinel

The jury rejected his claims of a consensual sexual romp, and Uber driver Gary Kitchings now stands convicted of raping a passenger he picked up after SunFest last year.

A weeklong trial ended Friday with a guilty verdict on five felony charges for the 58-year-old former foster care provider, who drove part-time for the ride sharing service.

Kitchings testified his front-seat passenger was flirtatious, and it turned into a consensual sex “good time” hook up at her Jupiter condo before he returned to Uber driving the same night.

Gary Kitchings, 58, testifies in a Palm Beach County courtroom on March 15, 2018, in his own defense against charges of raping a woman after giving her a Uber ride from SunFest last year.

 But his 38-year-old accuser said her ride home in Kitchings’ Nissan Versa and the attack in her home were terrifying. She told the jury that Kitchings was a “monster” who locked the car doors, threatened to shoot her unless she performed a sex act and swallow his urine while he drove, and then broke into her home and raped her.

It took nine hours of deliberations over two days, but the panel of five men and one woman decided the woman was a victim. Kitchings was acquitted of one sexual battery count, over the alleged oral sex in the car.

“I’m so very happy with the verdict,” the woman told reporters outside the courtroom, asking not to be identified. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for an amazing jury. I wish I could thank each of them in person.” Juror 5, one of the men on the panel, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that they took their time going through the evidence because “you don’t want to make the wrong decision.” The juror, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was “a classic case” of he-said, she-said and ultimately they decided she was raped.

The woman, who lives in New York City and runs an online skin care products company, also praised prosecutors Marci Rex and Brianna Coakley as “heroes.” Rex said the verdict was a relief because it didn’t turn out to be another case where the woman is blamed for claiming rape. “It’s so rewarding to know the jurors could look at the evidence and look even at the victim’s word and not just say that it’s a he said, she said,” the prosecutor said. “It speaks volumes on a shift in the rape climate to know that they usually blame the victim and this time they didn’t do that.”

Kitchings was found guilty of three counts of sexual battery with a deadly weapon or physical force, one count of burglary with assault or battery, and false imprisonment.

Kitchings then returned to Palm Beach County Jail and will face up to life in prison when he is sentenced May 18 by Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx.

Assistant Public Defenders Stephen Arbuzow and Raquel Tortora vowed to challenge the convictions.

One of the grounds for the appeal is expected to be Judge Marx’s refusal to let the defense inform the jury that Kitchings’ accuser had made a rape claim against a different man over an encounter in a New York City hotel in 2016. The defendant in that case also says it was consensual, and a trial is likely in April.

“We’re disappointed in the way this turned out,” Arbuzow told reporters. “We believe Mr. Kitchings is an innocent man.”

 Gary Kitchings appears in this May 8, 2017 booking photo.

 (Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office)

After his arrest, Kitchings lost his jobs with Uber and a foster home facility in suburban West Palm Beach.

On the witness stand, Kitchings said he was guilty only of cheating on his wife, saying he was flattered by the attention from the younger woman he picked up May 7, 2017, following the West Palm Beach arts and music festival.

“She asked me if I cheat,” he said, denying that anything sexual happened in the car. “I wasn’t opposed to any of it.”

Kitchings said once they got to her place, the woman said it wasn’t necessary for him to grab a condom from his trunk, and he recalled, “She had this nice grin on her face.”

During his closing argument Thursday, Arbuzow said the woman was lying and putting on an act when she called 911 after Kitchings went back on the road. The jurors listened to a recording of the woman crying to the operator on the call.

Arbuzow said he was afraid the jury would convict his client “just because it sounds horrible,” suggesting the woman cried rape because she had regrets about the hook-up, or possibly she wanted to make an excuse for selling her condo. He also said police never found a gun.

But the prosecutors said the woman had no reason to make up the rape, which meant undergoing an invasive hospital exam and later testifying before strangers in court.

They also said that in the days before the attack she was with her boyfriend in Mexico, and would never be attracted to an overweight Uber driver for what the defense branded a “one night stand.”

“This was the worst night of her life,” prosecutor Rex said.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-pn-uber-driver-rape-trial-verdict-watch-20180316-story.html