On Friday, Sept. 26, Edward Duncan pleaded guilty to three counts of simple assault, a misdemeanor. He will serve 24 months of probation. At the end of that time—if he keeps his nose clean—the case will be expunged from court files forever. There will no longer be any indication that he was indicted on two counts of child rape, three counts of sexual battery and one count of statutory rape for the "unlawful sexual penetration" of three girls ages 5 to 7.
Colleges and future employers will have no idea that Duncan, now 19, was accused of showing his penis to three little girls who lived next door to his parents' Belle Meade home. They'll never know that he was charged with tricking at least one of the girls into licking his penis by telling her it was a lollipop tree.
Edward's father, Townes Duncan, probably prefers it this way. He's an influential man in Nashville, a former attorney turned venture capitalist who owns a stake in SouthComm, parent company of The City Paper. He also sits on the board of the prestigious Ensworth School, where the three little girls go to school, and where Edward attended until his indictment.
From the beginning, Townes had used that ample influence to assert his son's innocence. He and his wife Ellen adopted Edward from a Russian orphanage when he was 13. In the intervening years, he'd grown into a tall, broad-shouldered young man who moved easily among other future Nashville elites.
But the accusations against him hadn't come from just anyone. They'd been leveled by the daughters of Patrick and Pip Keeble, whose Nashville blue-blood bona fides stretch back to the early 1900s.
The nightmare began in the summer of 2007, when the Duncans moved into the leafy Belle Meade neighborhood off of Highway 100 while their Green Hills residence was being remodeled. On the evening of July 23, the two families had dinner together. Afterward, the Keeble girls and Edward went outside to catch fireflies. The pleasant evening seemed to wind down without incident.
But a month later, the Keeble girls had a confession to make: Edward Duncan showed them his penis that evening in July, they said. One of the girls would later say that he'd also ejaculated in front of her that night.
A week later, the girls would repeat this story on camera at the Nashville Child Advocacy center. Edward was arrested and charged with some of the worst crimes in the legal lexicon.
Townes Duncan countered by hiring a dream team of lawyers and circulating an email to friends, family and business associates, decrying the charges and proclaiming his son's innocence (Family Vs. Family, Sept. 4, 2008).
If found guilty at trial, Edward would have spent much of his remaining time on earth locked in a cage of steel and cement.
But he would never face a jury. District Attorney Torry Johnson is a friend of Townes Duncan, so he recused himself from the case. In stepped former Williamson County prosecutor Joe Baugh, who didn't have much to work with. His principal witnesses were three little girls who couldn't even fully understand what they'd been through.
"Would you put two 8-year-olds and a 6-year-old through a trial?" Baugh asks. "What is the thing that is best for the children? They don't teach you this in law school."
Baugh disagrees that the Duncans' wealth influenced Edward's relatively light plea.
"I don't know that monetary resources or trial resources would change the facts of this case, and one of the facts is that you are dealing with the memories and sensibilities of very young children," he says. "It's like Scott Fitzgerald said about the rich: 'The rich are different than us.' Yes, they have more money."
But if Baugh had asked the girls to testify, they likely would have faced stiff cross-examination and counter-testimony from a team of lawyers and expert witnesses few defendants could afford.
The Duncans hired Dr. William Bernet, director of Vanderbilt's forensic services program, to evaluate the videotaped testimonials the girls recorded at the Child Advocacy Center. In a written summary, he concludes that the statements were flawed because the interviewers "asked the girls many suggestive questions, which may have shaped the girls' answers." Examples include: "Did Edward say something to you when he showed you his penis?" and "He touched his penis on you?"
Though Bernet concedes "The central gist of the story is the same for all three girls...that Edward showed them his penis in the Duncans' backyard and asked them to touch and/or lick it," he writes that the girls "disagree on almost everything else." Details, like how Edward convinced the girls to lick his penis, reveal the biggest discrepancies. "According to [one of the girls] Edward said it was a lollipop; according to [another], Edward said it tasted like strawberries; according to [the third sister], Edward said it tasted like flowers."
Court records also reflect a growing enmity between the families. One of a flurry of motions filed by Duncan's attorneys requests the cell phone records of Pip Keeble.
The motion states that on April 3, 2008, the Keebles were taking in a Predators game at the Sommet Center. Edward Duncan was sitting in the same row. A witness said Pip Keeble referred to Edward as a "F---face" and "m-----f----" in a text message written on her phone.
Though it would seem a natural way to refer to a man accused of raping one's daughters, Duncan's attorneys claim it was proof the Keebles were biased against their client, thus tainting their testimony.
Neither family would comment for this story, though both seem happy the whole mess can now be discussed in past tense.
"These girls have been incredibly brave through this entire ordeal," says the Keebles' lawyer and family adviser, Trey Harwell. "The whole family just wants to turn the page on this."
But the document outlining Edward's plea leaves lingering doubt whether justice was served. The headline reads "State of Tennessee v. Edward Green Duncan." The next line reads "Petition to enter conditional plea," in bold, black type.
Yet the words "best interest" are handwritten between "conditional" and "plea."
It just doesn't explain whose best interest.
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