SALT LAKE CITY — Mariah Faulkner had been waiting for the moment for almost 14 years.
She listened as a prosecutor explained to a jury in Salt Lake City last month that Faulkner is not to blame what happened to her at age 13. Attorney Donna Kelly displayed a school picture of Faulkner at that age, arguing that her adoptive mother's then-boyfriend, Jimmy Haynes, took advantage of her family's trust and abused her.
It quieted the thoughts that had been nagging Faulkner for most of her life — that she didn't fit in with her adoptive family and brought the abuse on herself because of how she dressed.
"It's kind of a third-party perspective of, 'No. This was wrong. This really wasn't my fault,'" Faulkner said. "I always blamed myself. I was wearing little shorts at the time. And I thought, 'That was inappropriate. I shouldn't have done that around him.'"
She had first sought out validation from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office in 2014, but a prosecutor declined to file criminal charges. Last year, after a friend spotted Haynes in her neighborhood, Faulkner worried he would try to harm her again.
She enlisted help from a private investigator and returned to the district attorney's office with new resolve.
It's unusual for prosecutors to file criminal charges years after declining to do so, unless detectives learn about new evidence significant to the case.
While investigator Kelly Shafto didn't come across new information, she tracked down witnesses and conducted fresh interviews, compiling their statements just as she had in her 20-year tenure with Salt Lake County's Unified Police Department.
Shafto acknowledges her efforts helped speed the case to trial. But she insists Faulkner would have won even without her help. She believes the case hit a dead end in part because law enforcers are overwhelmed and also due to tragic circumstances outside Faulkner's control.
The special victims' detective working to get her case back in front of prosecutors died suddenly on the job in 2017, and the case languished as detectives struggled to keep pace with a growing caseload, Shafto said.
"It just got lost in the shuffle and it didn't get done," said Shafto, who helped Faulkner at no cost.
Much can depend on the individual attorneys reviewing a case, Shafto added. "Is this an attorney that's doing this job for the right reasons? And is this attorney doing the job and really looking over the evidence before moving forward?"
Haynes had sent Faulkner back to California at age 15, where she entered the state's foster system and disclosed the assault to a therapist in California. She'd told others, but they didn't believe her, she said. She began cutting herself to cope and avoided wearing skirts and dresses, the types of clothes she believed led to her assault.
On March 17, a jury found Haynes guilty as charged of five first-degree felonies: rape of a child, three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, and sodomy on a child. Each carries a maximum sentence of at least five years and up to life in prison.
Faulkner credits Shafto and Kelly, a longtime sex crimes prosecutor, for the verdicts reached in a little under two hours. But she also says time played a role. In adulthood, she has a stronger support network of family members and found it easier to prod police and check in with the district attorney's office.
"I just felt like, what else was I going to do? Was I just going to live with this and be scared, or fight for myself?" she said. "I was kind of ready to fight for it this time."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the prosecutor who first declined the case seven years ago has since left the office. Gill has also had his employees change their approach toward victims to listen better and avoid causing additional trauma, he said.
When Faulkner returned to the office last year, "It gave us an opportunity to look at it with fresh eyes with a different team and different sort of a mindset," Gill said. "It was still a journey for her and she needs to be really commended for her resiliency."
Gill emphasized prosecutors may feel they have to decline a case because of the evidence but it doesn't mean they don't believe the victim.
Hayes has maintained his innocence.
"We're addressing the different avenues for an appeal at this time, but we 100% anticipate doing an appeal," said defense attorney William Melton.
At trial, Melton and attorney Craig Johnson argued the case relied on stories that were inconsistent. They emphasized an exchange between the Children's Justice Center and investigators that they said indicated the victim had reportedly denied the abuse.
The state relied on Facebook messages where Faulkner had told others what had happened, but those exchanges weren't new to police, Johnson said.
"In this case, where the quote unquote new evidence was really old evidence, it was quite shocking that charges were refiled six years after they were declined," said Johnson, a former special victim prosecutor in Utah County.
The trial took place in the pandemic, where attorneys wore two masks, which muffled their voices and concealed much of their faces, Johnson noted.
"I'm not saying it's the reason we lost, but it's a relevant consideration to people saying, 'I want my day at trial in the COVID age," he said.
Faulkner, who works in tech support, said she's now considering a career as a victim advocate.
She said she wants others who have been through something similar not to feel ashamed.
"There's always support out there, even when you don't feel like there is," she said.