A former Lyft driver from Lompoc was found guilty Friday of sexually assaulting a ride-share customer after taking the intoxicated woman home from a DUI stop last year.
However, Jason Lamont Fenwick was found not guilty of the most serious charge — assault with intent to commit a sex crime during the commission of a burglary, which carried the possibility of a life sentence.
Instead, he was convicted of four lesser charges and now faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in state prison.
The jury of five men and seven women found Fenwick guilty of assault with intent to commit sex crimes, oral copulation, and sexual penetration with a foreign object. He also was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized invasion of privacy for allegedly taking photographs of the victim as she reportedly lay unconscious in bed.
The San Luis Obispo County Superior Court jury reached the verdicts after about a full day of deliberations in the two-week trial, during which they were shown in-home security surveillance footage of the incident, which Fenwick said he believed was consensual, even though he described the 28-year-old woman as “a mess” and “faded.”
He testified on Tuesday that the woman — who The Tribune is referring to as Jane Doe — was sexually aggressive toward him and led him into her bedroom, though she testified a day earlier that she doesn’t remember the encounter and was not capable of consenting to sexual activity.
The case hinged on whether jurors thought Fenwick believed Jane Doe was capable of giving consent, and if so, whether that was a reasonable belief.
Deputy District Attorney Christopher White, who prosecuted the case, released a statement Friday afternoon thanking the jury for their efforts in a “difficult and emotional case.”
“This young woman is a survivor who demonstrated tremendous courage by reporting the crime and testifying in court, which was absolutely necessary in order to hold the defendant accountable,” White wrote. “We also thank the Sheriff’s Detective Bureau and District Attorney staff who worked tirelessly to see that justice was done.”
Fenwick’s defense attorney, Jeff Chambliss, said in an email following the hearing that it was too early to tell whether his client would appeal.
“Mr. Fenwick and his family are very pleased that he is no longer facing life in prison, and we greatly appreciate the hard work and diligence of the jury and the Honorable (Judge) Matthew Guerrero and his staff,” Chambliss wrote.
Fenwick was remanded back to the San Luis Obispo County Jail, where he has been since his arrest on Nov. 4, 2018.
The local case has led to a civil lawsuit against Lyft for alleged negligent hiring and safety practices filed by Jane Doe’s San Luis Obispo attorney, James McKiernan. That case is ongoing.
Outside the courtroom Friday, McKiernan said that he and his client, who testified during the trial, are pleased that the criminal portion of the case is mostly complete.
On the same day in which another ride-share company, Uber, reported more than 3,000 sexual assaults during its rides in 2018, McKiernan said that his client’s case is one of the first to result in conviction by jury trial among a growing number of assaults on customers.
“We’re one of the few cases that’s gone this far, with somebody who’s pioneering and strong enough to withstand the criminal justice process of being torn down, torn apart and criticized, (and) mocked, to bring it to a conclusion in front of 12 people,” he said. “There were a lot of hurdles in this case.”
McKiernan said that despite assertions by the defense, his client “didn’t need” the criminal conviction to proceed with her civil case.
“Instead, we’re just part of the rising tide of cases against ride-share companies who are putting profit over safety,” he said.
According to testimony given in the trial, Jane Doe was out for a night of drinks and dancing in the South County with her boyfriend around midnight on Nov. 3, 2018, when her boyfriend was arrested for DUI on their way home.
Because she was too intoxicated to drive herself and had no available friends, Arroyo Grande police officers ordered her a Lyft ride from her cell phone’s Lyft app as the most practical alternative to taking her to the County Jail for being drunk in public, the officers testified.
Fenwick answered the call and drove Jane Doe to the Nipomo home she shared with her boyfriend, walking her inside as she struggled to find a way in, he testified.
The woman testified that she doesn’t remember ever talking with Fenwick before falling asleep in her bed, and woke up the next morning with discomfort and a feeling that “something sexual had occurred” but no memory.
The surveillance footage was played for the jury at an angle not visible to the audience in the courtroom. However, based on attorneys’ questioning of witnesses, the video supposedly showed Fenwick engaging in sexual activity with Jane Doe as Doe was mostly motionless on the bed, as well as Fenwick taking photographs of her before putting her underwear back on her and leaving the house.
He left himself a $20 tip from her cell phone, which he testified she told him to do.
The boyfriend, who was given immunity by the District Attorney’s Office, testified that after he was released from jail, Jane Doe told him that she didn’t feel well. He watched his home surveillance footage — which was filmed inside the bedroom, unbeknownst to Jane Doe — and told her that she had been sexually assaulted, the boyfriend testified.
Fenwick was arrested after he was identified as the driver, and sheriff’s detectives interviewed him at the Lompoc Police Station under the ruse that he was the victim of identity theft.
He initially denied having any sexual contact with the woman but eventually admitted it was consensual and that he was scared after Lyft suspended his driving privileges because a complaint had been filed with the company.
“I lied because I was scared,” Fenwick testified Tuesday. “I was terrified because I was being accused of a crime, a rape crime.”
Fenwick, who had a clean criminal record save for a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from 2002, said he believed that Jane Doe had “taken a liking” to him and had asked him repeatedly to stay with her.
Asked by Chambliss if he believed that she wanted to have sexual intercourse with him, Fenwick replied, “In my mind, I believed so.”
Outside the courtroom Friday, jury foreman Tim Stark said the jury was “extremely careful and focused on evaluating all of the counts as specifically as we could given the jury instructions.”
Stark said jurors had questions over what constituted intent and specifically Fenwick’s intent. The count as it read listed two specific sex acts as the exact acts that were intended at entry of the home, he said, which some jurors could not agree on.
“The whole jury could not come to an agreement on whether we believed that intent was clear,” Stark said. “And that’s what led us to the lesser charge, which we all could agree on, and we felt was justified beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He added that the prosecution “put on a fine case,” as did the defense.
“In the end, I feel like there was very little that needed to be done, just based upon the video evidence,” Stark said, calling the footage “graphic, explicit and nearly irrefutable.” “That video evidence was the most direct and difficult pieces of evidence to deal with. It was like viewing a nightmare.”