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After walking off during trial, child porn offender found

South Boston News
Coates / September 21, 2017

A child porn offender who walked away from his trial in Halifax County Circuit Court on Tuesday and failed to reappear — prompting a two-day search by authorities — was taken into custody Wednesday evening by members of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office.

Jessie Randall Coates, 42, of Alton did not return to court after a lunch break recess Tuesday afternoon on the second day of his jury trial in Halifax. With the defendant nowhere to be found, the trial went on, with the jury rendering guilty verdicts against Coates on nine child sex felony charges.

The jury recommended a prison sentence of 63 years; the final sentencing decision will be made by Circuit Judge Kim White at a hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

Of the 63-year prison term recommended by the jury, 60 years are mandatory minimum sentences for the charged offenses, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Q. Martin.

Coates’ no-show marked the first time in recent memory that a defendant has walked out midway through a criminal trial and gone missing, said Deputy Clerk of Court Jill Throckmorton, a 17-year court employee who was in the courtroom at the time. “Everybody was told to be back at 1:30 after lunch, and he didn’t come back,” said Throckmorton.

Prior to breaking for lunch, both the defense and prosecution had wrapped up the presentation of evidence. Upon returning to the courtroom with Coates absent, the judge issued orders for his arrest and revocation of his $20,000 property bond.

Coates, who had been free on bond leading up to the trial, has no prior felony criminal record, according to the Commonwealth’s Attorney office. The bond order allowing his freedom was entered by a substitute judge in January, shortly after Coates’ arrest that same month.

The charges against him date back to January 2015. According to Martin, Coates began communicating with a 13-year-old county girl on his cell phone via Facebook Messenger.

“He gained her trust over a period of weeks and eventually asked the minor to send him nude pictures of herself on several occasions,” said Martin. Following repeated requests, the teen transmitted three nude pictures of herself using the messaging app.

Following two days of testimony — including by the victim, who Martin praised for showing “incredible strength — Coates was found guilty of three counts of possession of child pornography; three counts of using electronic communications to solicit a child less than 15 years to expose herself; and three counts of soliciting a child less than 15 to be the subject of child pornography.

Of the three latter counts, two are second or subsequent offenses, noted Martin.

“This case was an intensive investigation involving digital evidence and hundreds of pages to sort through,” she said of the prosecution, which was handled by assistants Kia Scott and William Hamilton with Martin’s support.

Martin further credited the Sheriff’s Office and Investigator Jeff Burton with doing “an excellent job investigating the case and helping us to prepare the case for trial.”

With Scott leading the prosecution for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, “it paid off for the citizens of Halifax County,” she said.

Coates was represented by a court-appointed attorney, James Fairchild of Forest. After his client walked away from the trial, Fairchild presented his closing argument, as did the prosecution, and White issued instructions to the jury before the panel retreated to chambers to render a verdict.

Interviewed on Wednesday afternoon, HCSO Investigator Burton expressed frustration with Coates’ disappearance but noted that his background did not suggest that he was highly dangerous to the public. “I don’t know if he’s ever been in a physical altercation with anybody,” said Burton.

At press time Wednesday, the circumstances of Coates’ arrest were unclear, but Martin, in a statement on the matter, expressed “thanks to the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, and other agencies, who worked quickly and diligently to locate the subject. I am pleased he will be brought to justice in the manner the jury saw fit.”

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