Jury acquits former Lawrence police officer who was accused of raping woman while on duty
photo by: Chris Conde
Story updated at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 26:
Jurors on Friday acquitted a former Lawrence police officer who was accused of raping a woman more than six years ago and later using police computers to search for the woman’s personal information.
After a weeklong trial in Douglas County District Court, Jonathan Mark Gardner, 42, of Tonganoxie, was found not guilty on all of the counts he was charged with — one count of rape, 17 felony counts of unlawful use of computers and 17 misdemeanor counts of officer misconduct. The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for about seven hours Friday before returning its verdict.
As the Journal-World has reported, Gardner was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman on Jan. 1, 2017, after the woman had spent New Year’s Eve drinking at a bar in downtown Lawrence and as the officer was giving her a ride home. The woman alleged that while she was in the police car with Gardner, he reached over the center console while they were driving, put his hand on her thigh and then put his fingers inside her. Under Kansas law, any penetration of the female sex organ constitutes rape.
After the jury’s verdict was read, Gardner tearfully hugged his wife and multiple other members of his family.
“Mr. Gardner is innocent, was innocent and will always be innocent,” Gardner’s defense attorney, John DeMarco, said Friday evening. “We are pleased with the results of the jury’s decision.”
photo by: Chris Conde
photo by: Chris Conde
In closing arguments Friday morning, the state argued that Gardner had abused his position of trust as a police officer to take advantage of a vulnerable woman, while the defense maintained that Gardner had done nothing improper or illegal but had just tried to help a woman get home safely on a cold winter night.
Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden said the woman, as she had testified, was too drunk to consent to any sexual contact with anyone the night of the incident. Seiden said she just needed a safe way to get home. She had considered staying the night at a hotel near the bar where she had been drinking with some people she had just met, but she changed her mind when she saw police arrive at the hotel.
“Go stay in a hotel room with some strangers? Or do the safe thing, get a ride from a police officer? You go to the badge, you’re going to be safe. She couldn’t be more wrong that night,” Seiden told the jury.
Seiden said that Gardner had the woman in the front seat of a patrol car when he turned off the car’s radio, GPS and cameras and assaulted the woman. He said Gardner only decided to come up with a story about the radio silence when taking the stand to testify on Thursday and that if Gardner had an excuse why he didn’t call into dispatch during those 25 minutes, he should have told investigators much sooner than at trial.
The woman was picked up immediately after the incident by another officer, but she didn’t tell that officer what had just happened, Seiden said.
“She had just been violated by one officer; she wasn’t comfortable telling another,” Seiden said.
Gardner had claimed the woman was flirtatious and made advances toward him the night of the incident, which Gardner said was not a normal interaction, yet he never filed a report about the woman, Seiden said.
Gardner searched for the woman’s personal information 17 times in the four years after the incident, using the Lawrence police database 12 times and the state database five times for what Gardner claimed were law enforcement purposes or because the woman had looked at him strangely at a gas station, Seiden said. The police database tracks any interactions a person might have with law enforcement, including if the person makes a report.
“Gardner benefited from that information. He kept tabs on her. If she ever filed a report against him, he would know,” Seiden said.
Seiden said that in the next interaction the two had in 2021 at the Lawrence police station, Gardner took an unrelated report from the woman’s friend and recorded the entire interaction except one part: when Gardner identified himself to the woman and reminded her that he was the one who gave her a ride home that New Year’s morning.
“What incentive would (she) have to fabricate this story?” Seiden asked.
In his final remarks, Seiden pointed to Gardner in the courtroom and said, “(She) was violated by a person in a position of trust. Mr. Gardner is guilty of all 35 counts,” to which Gardner sat staring at Seiden shaking his head “no.”
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
DeMarco closed the trial by denying that his client had committed an assault and questioning the woman’s decision to wait so many years after the alleged rape to report it. He also questioned the decision of people he deemed mandatory reporters, specifically two therapists, not to report such a crime by a police officer.
DeMarco said the investigation into the allegations was lacking and that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation never tried to check the woman’s bar tab the night of the incident to see how many drinks she may have purchased. Nor did investigators look into the vehicle that Gardner was driving the night of the incident for possible faulty equipment, DeMarco said.
Gardner put the woman in the front seat of his patrol car that night out of kindness on a night when temperatures were below freezing, DeMarco said. The backseat had only one seat belt, and a man who was also being given a ride — one of the people the woman had met at the bar — was using that.
“Perhaps (she) wanted to be in the front seat,” DeMarco added.
The woman directed Gardner to her grandmother’s, where no one was home, DeMarco said. He asked the jury to “read into that” and ask why she would invite a police officer back to an empty house.
DeMarco said that the jury shouldn’t “go down the rabbit hole” about why it took so long for Gardner to get the woman home and that 30 minutes wasn’t that long considering the woman wouldn’t tell Gardner exactly where she wanted to go.
DeMarco said it was hard to believe that Gardner would rape the woman in his patrol car, then just hand her off to another officer with confidence that she wouldn’t tell.
DeMarco concluded by saying that the woman had repeatedly in police interviews and on the witness stand said that she didn’t know for sure if she might have consented to any sexual contact that night or if she was being flirtatious. He said that Gardner was sure, though.
“He testified. He didn’t have to, but he did. He’s got nothing to hide,” DeMarco said.
At one point, Gardner’s case was in criminal mediation, as the Journal-World reported, and Gardner was offered a plea deal — to enter a no contest or guilty plea to a midlevel aggravated sexual battery charge and three counts of the felony unlawful use of a computer charge — but he rejected the offer. In January, a judge denied Gardner’s request to be tried in a different venue.
Gardner was sworn in as an LPD officer in June 2013 and left the department shortly after his arrest in March 2022.
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
More coverage: Former Lawrence Police Officer accused of on-duty rape
• May 25, 2023: At ex-officer’s rape trial, woman testifies about fear, conflicted feelings before reporting incident; defendant takes stand and denies assaulting her
• May 24, 2023: On Day 2 of ex-officer’s rape trial, witness testifies about woman’s reluctance to report crime: ‘I cannot call the police. He is the police’
• May 23, 2023: Defense and prosecution provide differing accounts of night that on-duty Lawrence officer is accused of having raped woman
• May 12, 2023: Former Lawrence police officer charged with rape rejects plea offer, says he’s ready for trial
• September 15, 2022: Former Lawrence police officer will now stand trial in rape case
• May 24, 2022: Case of former Lawrence police officer charged with rape is moved to mediation per parties’ agreement
• May 3, 2022: Affidavit details allegations that led to officer’s arrest on rape charge