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Man convicted in 1988 Vero Beach rape case loses legal bid to undo two life prison terms

VERO BEACH −Nearly 36 years after a Vero Beach woman was raped twice and left for dead by a man who grabbed her on a jogging trail, she returned to court Thursday to face her attacker as he failed to convince a judge to reduce his life prison term.

The woman, who was 40 on Sept. 28, 1988 when she was beaten, sexually assaulted and choked until she passed out on that trail at what was the Jungle Club fitness complex on Sixth Avenue, showed little emotion in court as she faced Daron Huston, 55, of Fort Pierce. He had been sentenced to two life prison terms following a trial in 1989.

Daron Huston, 55, appears before Circuit Judge Robert Meadows, Thursday, April 4, 2024, at the Indian River County Courthouse.

A jury convicted him of attempted first-degree murder, robbery and two counts of sexual assault with physical force.

In February, Huston, who has spent decades appealing his two life prison terms, was granted a sentencing do-over by the Fourth District Court of Appeal seated in West Palm Beach.

The appellate court ruled that during his 1989 sentencing, errors were committed in the way a scoresheet was calculated as part of the sentencing guidelines in effect at the time. The case was returned to Circuit Judge Robert Meadows to conduct a new sentencing for only the two sexual assault convictions.

‘Afraid of him’

In court Thursday, the woman told Assistant State Attorney William Long she feared for her safety if Huston were ever released.  As she spoke, about a dozen of her relatives watched as Long briefly quizzed her.

“If he were to be released, how would that affect you?” Long asked

“I would be afraid of him,” she said, “and it would change probably the rest of my life.”

“Has your life ever been the same since this occurred?” he pressed.

“No,” she said, standing at a podium, wearing a white printed blouse and black slacks.

She urged Meadows to impose the maximum punishment.

What happened in 1988?

Prosecutors have said Huston attacked the woman from behind about 3 p.m. in September 1988, wrapped a red T-shirt around her neck and beat her to the ground. He then ordered her to perform oral sex on him and took her clothes off.

After the attack, both got dressed. But when the woman tried to leave, Huston said “we have a problem,” choked her with the T-shirt until she lost consciousness and raped her again.

Huston either thought the woman was dead or was scared off before he could make sure she was no longer breathing. He took three gold rings, two gold chains and a pair of gold earrings, according to an arrest report.

Nine days after the attack, the woman saw Huston at a Vero Beach High School football game she attended with her children. She pointed him out to sheriff’s deputies, who arrested him after a brief chase.

The woman’s necklace was found in Huston’s pocket when he was arrested, but he claimed he had bought it at a local pool hall.  An appeal court upheld Huston’s convictions and sentence in 1990.

Sentencing do-over

In court papers, Huston’s attorney Jeffrey Garland stated that during his 1989 sentencing, a judge should have relied on a sentencing guideline range of 27 to 40 years in prison.

Seated next to Garland Thursday, Huston apologized to the woman and her family as several of his relatives looked on, including his mother and aunt.

“I’m absolutely sorry for the actions that took place in 1988. I was a 19-year-old kid … I’m not that individual no more, sir,” said Huston, his voice breaking. “Since then, I’ve made a drastic change in my life. I accepted the Lord as my Savior and he’s put compassion in my heart.”

At times, Huston openly sobbed.

“When you’re young you make mistakes … and for over 35 years I’ve had to relive everything that transpired with her,” he said.

In prison, he’s gotten an education, completed numerous self-help courses, is a “model prisoner” and attends religious programs, he told Meadows.

Meadows wasn’t moved.

He ruled that the “heinous nature” of Huston’s crimes “ultimately terrorized the entire life of the victim, that it so psychologically paralyzed the victim, even to this day.”

“And then after the sexual battery, in an effort so as he not be identified, he chose to kill the victim,” Meadows said. “It’s only by the grace of God, that the victim is with us today.”

These crimes were “no mistake,” Meadows added.

“At this time, I will upwardly depart in this case,” Meadows ruled. “I will sentence you to life in prison.”

He ordered that Huston’s two life terms be served at the same time.

After court, Long said the woman and her family were “thrilled” Meadows ordered Huston to remain in prison for life.

“I’m very glad that that happened. I’m happy for the victim,” he said. “I have no doubt this is probably not the end of the story. I’m sure the defense will appeal it. But we’re very, very happy.”

Garland on Thursday confirmed Huston intends to appeal his sentence.