DECATUR – Donald L. Cheney Jr., a 42-year-old correctional officer employed at the Decatur women's prison, was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor battery by a judge, for grabbing a 27-year-old bartender by her crotch during a Christmas party at a bar.
Cheney was tried by Circuit Judge Thomas E. Griffith for the felony charge of criminal sexual abuse.
Griffith ruled in favor of a defense motion to dismiss the felony charge on the grounds that it was not proved that force was used during the incident. When he convicted Cheney on the lesser charge, the defense accepted the verdict without presenting evidence.
Cheney was placed on suspension pending judicial review on Dec. 27, 2016, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said.
In testimony highly charged with emotion, the victim said that she was working at the bar on Dec. 19, 2015, at the annual Christmas party for Department of Corrections employees.
She said she walked up to the table where the defendant was sitting when he grabbed her crotch area, over her jeans.
After asking permission from the judge to use a swear word, she testified that she told Cheney, “Dude, don't get yourself knocked the (expletive) out. It's not OK to touch me.”
Then she shoved him and backed away, she said.
She reported the incident to the bar owner, a friend of Cheney's, but his response was shockingly inappropriate, she testified.
She decided to remain at work, but only if she could remain behind the bar and not wait on tables. She needed the job.
“I was still in shock at what happened,” the victim testified.
A video screened while the victim was on the stand shows her approaching the table, drinks in hand. Cheney turns toward her as his left hand reaches into her crotch.
“That's you pushing him away?” Assistant Macon County State's Attorney Kate Kurtz asked the victim.
“Yeah, then he's clapping,” the victim said.
A 27-year-old woman who was also at the party testified that her crotch was also grabbed by Cheney that night.
“I was standing next to a table of officers,” said the woman, a correctional employee at that time.
She said Cheney reached out and touched her crotch area, over her clothes. In response, she “turned and walked away and went and talked to somebody else.” She decided not to notify police or pursue criminal charges.
A male correctional officer, who was seated at Cheney's table at the time of the incident, testified that “Cheney made a motion with his hand towards the crotch area of the girl (the victim).”
He said he “didn't know if he made contact or not.” The victim “moved back, shocked, emotional, upset,” he testified.
Cheney was arrested in August 2016, booked into jail and released after posting bond. He was arraigned Sept. 20 on the felony charge.
After the verdict was handed down, defense attorney Gary Geisler said Cheney's suspension is without pay and Cheney “hopes he'll be able to return to his job.”
In his opening statement, Geisler said the state would have to prove that the act was “by force or threat of force and it was an act of sexual conduct for sexual gratification or sexual arousal.”
After Geisler moved for dismissal of the felony charge following the state's case, Kurtz argued that “the act itself was force. In order to disengage she had to push him away.” She said the victim was 5 feet, 3 inches tall, weighing 121 pounds, while Cheney was 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 200 pounds. She said there was no reason to grab a woman in that way other than for sexual arousal of gratification.
But Griffith said that case law indicated there had to be force separate from the “force inherent in the act itself.”
Cheney, facing up to 364 days in jail or probation, is due in court June 1 for his sentencing hearing.