A Northeast High School teacher was acquitted of child sexual abuse charges in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court yesterday after a three-day trial that focused on whether jurors believed her or her teen-age accuser.
Laurie S. Cook, 33, dabbed her eyes with a tissue, and hugged her attorney and then her relatives, who shouted "yes" in unison when the verdict was announced.
Ms. Cook said she was unsure whether she would return to teaching but that the ordeal has taught her a lesson "about the injustice that can happen to an innocent person."
"I've been told I'm a different person because of all this. I think I'm stronger for it," she said, flanked by her attorney, her parents and her two brothers.
The Catonsville woman's lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said she hoped the verdict would curb the "hysteria" that swept through Northeast High in the wake of charges filed against Ronald W. Price, a former social studies teacher at the school. She said she also hoped it would encourage more thorough investigations of child abuse allegations made by students against teachers.
"I think it sends a message, and well it should, that this hysteria has got to stop," Ms. Gutierrez said.
Price was convicted in September of molesting three of his former students and is serving a 26-year sentence.
His case attracted widespread attention after he admitted on national television that he had had sex with students.
Ms. Cook was charged with having relations with a Northeast football player between September 1991 and February 1992, when he was 14. The jury of seven men and five women deliberated about two hours before acquitting her.
Jurors said last night that they focused on contradictions in testimony from the state's witnesses.
"There was nothing consistent about anybody's testimony," said Roberta Fox, a juror from Edgewater.
Adrian Spears, a friend of the football player, testified that Ms. Cook had sexual relations with the football player during the summer of 1991. The alleged victim, now 16, had testified that it happened during the 1991 school year.
Eve Nations, a juror from Odenton, said she also was bothered by evidence showing the youth embellished the statement he gave police when he testified before the Anne Arundel County grand jury.
Assistant State's Attorney Robert Bittman said the sex and age of the youth may have made his case more difficult.
"You had a male accusing an older female, and you have a student accusing a teacher. Those kinds of cases are extremely difficult," he said.
Mr. Bittman said the youth, who was whisked out of the courthouse shortly after the verdict, remained adamant last night about the abuse allegations.
But Mr. Bittman acknowledged that the case, which was heard before Judge Eugene M. Lerner, never would have been tried if it hadn't been for the Price case.
The allegations against Ms. Cook were reported to authorities after Price was charged, Mr. Bittman said.
The alleged victim testified that he and the teacher had oral sex on at least one occasion in her car, that they often fondled each other in the back of her science classroom after school and that he broke off the relationship after she told him she "wanted to have his baby."
Ms. Gutierrez presented a battery of teachers and students who praised Ms. Cook's credibility and character. One of the students said she walked five miles to meet with the attorney because she was so convinced of Ms. Cook's innocence.
"I don't believe Ms. Cook would do anything like that," said Angelique Vogel, a Northeast sophomore.
Defense witnesses described the youth as a lazy, disruptive student who lied to teachers.
"He told a tall tale many times," said Kevin Buckley, who was the youth's ninth-grade teacher and football coach.
Ms. Gutierrez emphasized in an hourlong closing statement that the alleged victim had been described as a braggart who probably fabricated stories of his sexual relationship for his football buddies and got trapped into telling authorities in the wake of the Price case.
"Laurie Cook has nothing in her life to suggest an aggressive sexual predator," Ms. Gutierrez said.
B6 The affair existed "only in his dreams," she said.