BENTONVILLE (KFSM)- A former Bentonville Public Schools' employee convicted of raping a five-year-old girl while she was at an after-school program was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Friday (Jan. 30).
A jury found Ali Matar, 22, guilty of one count of rape, but not guilty of two counts of sexual assault. Matar was an employee for the Bentonville School District's Adventure Club when he was accused of sexually assaulting three young girls during the after-school program in May 2014.
To read a statement from the school district in response to the verdict, click here.
Benton County Circuit Court Judge Brad Karren imposed the jury's recommended sentence.
The verdict from the jury of seven women and five men came after several hours of deliberation over the course of two days. Jurors began deliberating Thursday (Jan. 29) afternoon around 2:30 p.m. before court recessed at 6 p.m. They came back Friday morning around 8:30 a.m. to continue deliberations and reached their verdict just after 1 p.m.
On Friday, during Matar's sentencing hearing, the mother of the victim told the courtroom her daughter hasn't been the same since she was raped. She said her child now suffers from mood swings, stomachaches, and headaches and is just now starting trauma therapy. The mother said her daughter used to laugh, smile and dance. She also said her child now stays away from boys in her class because she's scared of them.
The prosecutor noted during the sentencing hearing that in a phone call from the county jail, Matar said the reason he was smiling for television cameras while going in and out of the courthouse during his trial was so that people would like him.
Matar also took the stand, saying, "I'm not this terrible person that the prosecuting attorney is making me out to be." He also said he disagreed with the verdict and asked for the minimum sentence of 25 years. The maximum sentence would have been life in prison.
Members of Matar's family also testified. His father told the courtroom that Matar grew up in a Christian home and said he doesn't think his son is guilty based on everything he saw in a police interrogation video shown to the jury during the trial. Matar's sister also got on the stand saying Matar and her three-year-old daughter have a strong bond and she trusts him completely with her. Matar's mother said, after her son's arrest, the entire family was evicted from their apartment the next day.
Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith said he was pleased with the outcome of the trial.
"I'm relieved for the families," Smith said. "They've been through an ordeal and it's great to have it over. I'm very pleased with the sentence. 35 years will keep him in prison for a good, long while and that's exactly what he deserves."
Matar's defense attorney, Justin Hurst, has 30 days to appeal his conviction, which is something he said he and Matar will discuss.
"We're having a tough time with the rape conviction," Hurst said. "Ali [Matar] is having a tough time obviously, not knowing what his future holds with the sentence that he's been given, so it's been mixed feelings."
Matar's brother, John Matar, said his family believes Matar is innocent.
"Not all of the evidence was shown to prove his innocence," Matar's brother said. "So we would like to appeal, but it depends on Ali [Matar], if he wants to. We know that he's innocent and that's all I can tell you."
Matar was arrested in May 2014, after he was accused of raping a five-year-old girl who attended Adventure Club at R.E. Baker Elementary. Two six-year-old girls came forward shortly after that and told investigator Matar had sexually assaulted them while they were at the after-school program at the same elementary school.
During the trial, which started Tuesday (Jan. 27), the prosecutor called all three victims to the stand Wednesday (Jan. 28). The five-year-old girl who Matar was charged with raping told the jury that Matar had touched her inappropriately under her clothes. She said that he had “tickled her privates” in the library while she was playing on the computer. She said there were other children at the library at the time.
The second witness said Matar had touched her inappropriately as well, and said it was also under her clothing. She said the incident happened once in the computer lab.
The third girl told the jury that Matar had “touched her private parts” multiple times. She said he also had her sit on his lap often, and said the incidents had mostly happened in the cafeteria.
The other witness called to the stand Wednesday was the detective who questioned Matar when he was first arrested. The jury also watched a nearly three-hour interrogation video, where at first Matar denied touching the girl, then said he did touch her, but it was an accident.
The defense also called two witnesses to the stand on Wednesday. Both were forensic specialists with the Arkansas State Crime Lab, who testified there was no DNA evidence found on the five-year-old's clothes linking Matar to the rape.
Matar also testified during the trial. He went on the stand Thursday and told the jury the police had led him to the admission the jury saw in the interrogation video.
Matar will be transferred from the Benton County Detention Center to an Arkansas Department of Correction prison. Once he has served his time, Matar will be a registered sex offender.