1975 New Orleans rape victim

Jennifer Brush, who was raped in 1975 in her Uptown New Orleans apartment, poses outside Orleans Parish Criminal Court on Friday, June 2, 2023. The police investigation into her case went cold soon after the crime. An arrest was finally made in 2020.

A jury hopelessly deadlocked late Friday night in a 1975 New Orleans rape case, leaving two families without closure almost a half century after the crime.

Following four hours of deliberation, the panel announced it was unable to reach a decision in the trial of Ronald Craig. Now 67, Craig remains charged with first-degree rape and aggravated kidnapping.

It’s unclear how the jurors were divided; Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier denied an attorney’s request to poll them, then reduced Craig’s $250,000 bail to $50,000. He has remained in jail for the past three years.

The jury's declaration ended a four-day trial that spun on degraded DNA taken from underwear worn by Jennifer Brush in the moments after she was raped 48 years ago inside her Magazine Street apartment. Decades after the investigation went cold, New Orleans police resurrected the clothing from a storage closet, and a Louisiana State Police analyst partially matched the DNA to Craig.

Craig maintains his innocence. He must return to court June 20 for a pretrial conference.

'No winners here'

“There are no winners here,” Naomi Jones, an assistant district attorney, told jurors in her closing argument at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. “You have sat through a sadness, a sorrow. This building is a building of sorrow.”

In 1975, Brush, then a 19-year-old student at Tulane University, was held at gunpoint and repeatedly hit in the head by two masked assailants, one of whom penetrated her. But the samples scraped from her body by the coroner at the New Orleans' morgue were left untested, and were lost in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters destroyed the police storage basement.

The rape is “permanently, permanently seared into my mind,” Brush, 67, said from the witness stand this week, as she described that night. Later, she cast a glance at the defense table, where Craig sat in a wheelchair, and added: “All I can remember are his eyes. He had very large eyes.”

Scant physical evidence

Decades after the crime, Brush, an Ohio native, wrote an article for her local newspaper and named herself as a rape survivor. Authorities reopened the investigation, but all that remained in evidence was a bed sheet and her underwear — and on it, human cells that had presumably clung to the fabric for almost five decades.

A Louisiana forensic scientist, Ryan O'Leary, matched the genetic material to Craig, whose DNA was already in a national database. A second test, using a fresh sample collected from Craig, confirmed he could not be excluded as the major contributor to the DNA, O’Leary testified.

“That’s how I know there is no confirmation bias here,” Mary Glass, the head of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative unit at the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office, said in an interview shortly before the jury returned from deliberations Friday night. “No one was looking for Ronald Craig.”

At the time of the rape, Craig lived less than two blocks from Brush’s apartment.

Unreliable DNA, defense says

Defense attorneys argued against the DNA test results, and presented a witness whom prosecutors tried to disqualify as an expert: a molecular biologist and forensic scientist who testified that the Louisiana laboratory’s conclusions were erroneous.

The small and severely degraded DNA sample, which yielded only nine of 26 potential points of comparison, did not clearly show a major contributor, said the scientist, Phillip Danielson. And without a clear major contributor, “the conclusion that the DNA is from Ronald Craig must be drawn into question,” he said.

Danielson also told jurors that if Brush's underwear had been contaminated in any way in the 45 years before it was tested, the DNA results could be rendered unusable. The underwear was at one point transferred from breathable brown bags — the gold standard for evidence storage — to plastic bags, which can trap moisture and encourage mold, Danielson testified. Danielson reviewed the government’s reports, but not the raw evidence, before rendering his own report May 30.  

In authorities’ “desperation” to close a cold case and deliver justice to a survivor, said defense attorney Brady Smith, “they are asking you to convict Mr. Craig based on faulty science.”

Defense attorneys also presented an alternate theory, that Brush’s roommate in 1975 had helped to orchestrate the attack. Another woman was raped in same apartment before Brush.

Craig’s daughter, Deidre Craig, said in an interview that her father is a man of integrity who had been wrongly swept into the case. “This is a case based on life and death,” she told The Times-Picayune. “You don’t just assume. This is my father’s life.”

If he is convicted as charged, Craig will face life in prison.

Difficult circumstances

Rape cases can be especially difficult to try, and it’s not uncommon for them to end in hung juries. Last year, in the same court, the trials of two men charged with rape ended on the same day, both without verdicts.

“I think there are jurisdictions that would not have taken this to trial,” Glass said in the interview. “But it’s called a trial for a reason: try. How do you not? The cases are here. The women are here.”

Jurors didn’t begin deliberating Friday until after 6:30 p.m., and declared they were hung just before 10:30 p.m. State law requires jurors to be sequestered once they begin deliberations, but neither Flemings-Davillier nor the court made arrangements to sequester the jurors overnight in this trial, which is not unusual at the courthouse.

A legislative bill that recently passed in the Louisiana House and Senate and that awaits Gov. John Bel Edwards signature would give judges the authority to send deliberating jurors home instead of putting them up in a hotel until the trial ends.

Days before the verdict, Brush had contemplated such an ending. Seated outside the court with a reporter, she said, “My fear is that jury will believe I was raped but that it wasn’t him. I was raped. And I wonder, will it be worth it?”

After the verdict, she said: “It’s a bad day for victims and survivors.”

Email Jillian Kramer at jillian.kramer@theadvocate.com.