Despite taped confession, accused child molester walks free

SEATTLE -- A local father carried a dark secret for years until he decided to confess his crimes.

Bit by bit, he admitted on tape to molesting his daughter.

His confession was so convincing, prosecutors charged him. But what happened next sent the family into a tailspin and asking, where is justice for Bella?

Bella was a rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed baby. Like all children, before she could form words, she showed her joy in her smile and her frustration in her cries. But Bella had more to tell than she could express.

Her story came out, years later, in tape recorded conversations between her parents. On the tapes you hear Bella's mother, Susan, ask, "How many times did you take her out of the bath and masturbate while she was sitting naked on your lap?"

Her father, Jason, answers, "Oh you know Sue, I don't remember, but it was probably between five to 10 times."

Later on the tape he gives more detail.

"So when she was in the bath tub, giving her a bath, I'd touch her and, you know, kneeling down there next to the bath I'd masturbate," Jason is heard saying.

Susan asks, "Were you stimulating her?" and Jason murmered affirmatively.

Sitting down with KOMO 4 News recently, Susan sighed and said, "This is a long, twisted story."

It's a story that's taken more than a decade to come out. Now 12 years old, Bella also spoke with us, asking us to identify her and explain what happened. She knows she did nothing wrong, and she is not ashamed.

When she was 1, her mother walked in as her father was supposed to be giving her a bath. But he was sitting, pants down, holding Bella.

"I got on to him," Susan said. "I said, 'What are you doing?' He said 'I had to go to the bathroom so I sat down.' I was shaking and I just felt really strange. And scared. But the thought of him molesting our baby? Never crossed my mind - at that time."

It wasn't until years later, when Susan and Jason were divorcing and hashing out their problems in a unique way that she says the truth came to light.

"We would talk and I was very confused, and I think he was dealing with a lot of denial so we started using the tape recorder. We started taping our conversations," Susan said.

Those tapes led King County prosecutors to charge Sherwood with first degree child molestation in 2011. But he was never convicted of a crime. After a short bench trial this year, Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus wrote in her decision, "It does seem odd that when a man confesses to molesting his child, a court might not find him guilty of such a heinous crime."

His confession alone wasn't enough. Without more evidence, Judge Andrus said she had to throw out the charges.

In Latin, it is called "corpus delicti" and translates to "body of the crime." It is the proof that a crime occurred.

Christian Halliburton, an Associate Professor of Law at Seattle University explained corpus delicti.

"There's frequently abundant evidence a crime has occurred and it's proving who committed it that's the challenge rather than the existence of the crime," Halliburton said. "But it also comes up relatively infrequently because while it's an important predicate to prosecution, it's a relatively low threshold to meet. It doesn't even have to be physical evidence. It can be other corroborating evidence -- testimony by eyewitnesses and things like that."

"We thought we had sufficient evidence to corroborate what Mr. Sherwood said," said Rich Anderson, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County. "In this case, the judge didn't agree."

Susan believes prosecutors bungled the case, because they didn't pull a doctor's report from the time of the alleged abuse. The doctor made note of a rash, wrote a prescription to treat an infection, and asked if it was possible that Bella was being sexually abused.

Susan testified about that doctor's visit, but the prosecutor never pulled the report or called a medical expert to talk about it. That surprised three attorneys who reviewed the case for the Problem Solvers.

Each has a working relationship with King County prosecutors and wouldn't go on camera. But one said the county "botched it up." Another said, "they needed independent third party evidence. They had it and they didn't use it."

But prosecutors insist, the medical report wouldn't have made a difference.

"Having a doctor's signature on a piece of paper saying I saw a child's redness to the genital area and then having the mom say the exact same thing when no one's contesting it is, you know, overkill," Anderson said.

Anderson said nothing went wrong in the proceeding, but that the office was reminded of the importance of a thorough investigation.

"It does highlight the need for investigations in general involving nonverbal children to really leave no stone unturned and go for every possible corroborating circumstance that might help support the defendant's confession," Anderson said. "There's a natural instinct when someone confesses to a crime to say, that's what we need. He says he did it. but in order to overcome the hurdle of the corpus delicti rule you have to have that independent evidence. I would just consider it a reminder to investigators that they really have to go the extra mile when the child can't say what happened."

Bella's mother believes the same thing, but that the King County Prosecutor's Office did not go that extra mile.

"I feel they should have pulled those medical records," Susan said. "And they should have maybe had a medical expert come and talk about that. The other thing I feel they should have done is they should have had a child expert there. There was behaviors in her. This child could not talk."

Jason Sherwood walked out of the courtroom a free man, unhindered by these words from the judge.

"The Court does not find that Mr. Sherwood is innocent of the charged crime and neither he nor anyone else should interpret this decision as an exoneration," Judge Andrus wrote in her decision.

When he made those tapes years ago, Sherwood tearfully apologized to his children.

"I've made some very, very bad choices in my life," he said. "I am just so, so sorry."

He did not -- and has not -- won their forgiveness.

Bella recently confronted her father.

"I said how could you have ever loved any of us? And he said, 'I loved you guys very much. Sometimes my actions didn't show it, but I loved you guys very much, and I still do.' And I personally think that's really untrue," Bella said.

After asking him questions and writing down his answers, Bella said she is now done with Jason Sherwood.

"It's been hard for me to look at her beautiful baby pictures and not just see sadness and a little victim," Bella's mother Susan said. "Seeing her muster the courage to talk to her father, I see a survivor now."

She is a survivor who wants her story known and who hopes for no more victims. Jason Sherwood is free. But so is Bella.