OKLAHOMA CITY — Six children from Kenya are due in a closed federal courtroom this week to lay out accusations that an Oklahoma aid worker sexually assaulted them while volunteering at the orphanage where they lived.
After prosecutors said the defendant had asked his family to "pack the courtroom" with supporters, the presiding judge last week ordered that the public and press be kept out while the children testify. Other portions of the trial will be open.
"The victims may not be as open about the details of their encounters with the defendant during a public trial," prosecutors said in a recent court filing. They also feared "substantial psychological harm" to a child forced to testify in front of a crowd.
Matthew Lane Durham, 20, of Edmond, faces 17 counts of sexual misconduct, including aggravated sexual abuse and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to life in prison if convicted. Jury selection starts Tuesday.
Durham had volunteered since 2012 at the Upendo Children's Home in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The orphanage provides food, housing, clothes and educational and religious instruction. The government's 39 witnesses include the children, who will speak through an interpreter, and 10 missionaries.
Defense attorney Stephen Jones did not object to closing the courtroom.
The U.S. Attorney's office said last week that it would introduce evidence of phone calls between Durham, who has been in custody since he was charged in August, and his parents, Oklahoma City Fire Department Maj. Kyle Durham and Melissa Durham.
"There are numerous jailhouse phone calls between the defendant and his parents discussing a plan attempt to 'pack the courtroom' with supporters," according to the trial brief filed by prosecutors. "The jail phone calls have revealed hostility from defendant and his family."
Jones said he objects to the representations and that Matthew Durham's parents have been supportive of their son, including by trying to get him released into their custody while the charges were pending.
"In my judgment, the prosecution has acted irresponsibility almost to the point of defamation against Mr. Durham's family," Jones said. "It's inflammatory and excessive. The only people it reflects badly on is the people who say it."
Jones has challenged the credibility of evidence prosecutors have collected and the veracity of witnesses who allege Durham molested children at the orphanage last year.
"It didn't happen," Jones said. He said his client will testify in his own defense during the trial, which is expected to last a week.
An affidavit filed in federal court says Durham wrote and signed a statement for orphanage officials acknowledging the alleged sexual misconduct. An Upendo official provided the statement to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the affidavit says.
Jones has challenged Durham's statements, saying they were coerced by the orphanage officials, who had kept Durham him in isolation and confiscated his passport.
"Police weren't called. They weren't involved until after he had left the country," Jones said.