Defense attorney Herb Ellis argued that John Cady, 22, took the girl to his grandparents' residence in South Dakota last June to protect her from her father, escape an arranged marriage and leave the religious group Meade Ministries.
Cady was married at the time of the incident and a member of Meade Ministries. He has since left the group.
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Seigmeister said the victims' parents warned Cady to stay away from their daughter before she left with him and that they had a right to make decisions for their daughter because she is a minor.
Cady was arrested after bringing the girl back to Florida in late June, after a two-week road trip to visit his grandparents in South Dakota. He was first charged with interference of child custody, a felony. Later, when the girl told investigators they had sex on the trip, he was charged with lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 16. Court files say they had sexual intercourse that did not constitute sexual battery.
During testimony, the girl said she had sex with Cady on the ground of the parking lot of Westfield Plaza the morning Cady brought her back to her parents' Columbia County home. Cady told investigators he did not have sex with the girl, was only friends with her and took her out of her home after she called him asking for his help to leave the religious group. Cady did not take the stand in the trial.
I've got a new life to start and I have a lot of catching up to do," Cady said shortly after the verdict was read. He had been free on bond before the trial.
Ellis said he did not have Cady testify because the state failed to prove its case.
"I believe in keeping the evidence simple," Ellis said.
Seigmeister offered no comment after the trial but outlined what he believed were clear violations of the law in his closing statement.
"(The parents) are the lawful guardians and they said to John (Cady) to leave her alone," Seigmeister said. "Fifteen-year olds' decisions we don't hold to they same level as an adult."
Seigmeister said Cady wanted t o leave the group, but also wanted top take someone with him-in this case the victim-because his wife did not want to leave. In doing so he put ideas in the girl's head.
"Kids don't always look out for their best interests ... kids don't always make the best decisions," he said
During testimony, the girl admitted lying several times, including telling Cady and his grandmother she was older than 15. She also said one of the reasons she went away with Cady was to make her boyfriend, whom she was apparently meant to marry, jealous.
Despite her poor decisions Seigmeister said the simple facts were the girl was 15 and Cady was 21 at the time he took her and they had sex at least once in Columbia County.
"We have a 15-year-old girl that did not make smart decisions, but that's not a defense for his actions," he said.
However, the jury sided with Ellis' argument that Cady; took the girl in the best interests of her welfare. There was no other evidence presented that sexual acts occurred other than the girl's testimony.
Ellis also argued the validity of the girl's age since she was born at home in Wyoming with only her mother and father present.
During her parents' testimony, they said there was a picture of the girl's fiancée in her hope chest. Her father said she was to be married soon.
Despite the repeated references to the religious group's customs brought up during Ellis's questioning, Seigmeister said it was irrelevant.
"They have a First Amendment right to practice their religion any way they like to," he said.
Meade Ministries, which recently opened a large worship center near Columbia City, is a Christian organization under the leadership of Charles Meade, who led hundreds of followers to Lake City in the 1980s.