Arundel Teacher Sex Abuse Trials: Defense 4, Prosecution 1

May 22, 1994|By DENNIS O'BRIEN

Last year, Ron Price attracted national attention when he went on television and admitted to having sex with several of his students at Northeast High School.

Last week, the fourth school official in a row -- and the final one charged in Anne Arundel County after Price -- was acquitted by a Circuit Court jury.

If anyone was keeping a score card, it would read:

Defense 4, Prosecution 1.

There are two lessons in this.

One is that if you are charged with a crime, it is unwise to admit to it on the "Geraldo!" show. Price did, and he is now serving 21 years.

The second lesson is that it can be very difficult to convict a teacher of child abuse if you have only one alleged victim.

The facts, the attorneys, the strengths and the weaknesses were different in each of the four cases that followed Price's jury trial.

But there were a few consistent patterns in each:

All defense lawyers asked for jury trials, and all four prosecutors pointed out to those juries that like any other sex offense, child abuse almost always takes place behind closed doors.

And unlike a murder or a robbery, there are no fingerprints on a gun, no witnesses who saw a suspect's car at the scene, no bank records to show a need for cash and a motive, they said.

So in each case, it came down to the word of the student against the word of the teacher. Understandably, the teachers' lawyers all focused on credibility.

"The whole case comes down to credibility," said George S. Lantzas, a former prosecutor who has represented defendants charged with child abuse. "What other defense do you have, if you think about it?"

The teachers' lawyers paraded a battery of their clients' friends and supporters out to testify to his or her honesty, integrity and character. They attacked the truthfulness of the alleged victims, not through any tough, Perry Mason-like cross-examination, but by calling the alleged victim's friends and teachers to the witness stand to chip away at their credibility.

One alleged victim told stories to friends about seeing the defendant having sex with his wife and then admitted that the story was a lie, according to a friend's testimony. Another had been convicted of 28 counts of check fraud.

The defendants came off considerably better.

One of the defendants taught Sunday school. His lawyer mentioned that in his opening and closing statements. Another was an Army medic in Vietnam. That was mentioned three times in his lawyer's closing statement.

Add to such testimony the fact that in a courtroom, perception is everything.

Jurors were being asked to choose: Did they believe the college-educated middle-class professional in the coat and tie who looked them in the eye, sat with them each day in the courtroom and stood up whenever they entered or left it? Or were they to take the word of the teen-ager in sneakers or blue jeans who had to be told by the judge to speak up on the stand?

"I think what you're seeing at this point is a backlash by juries that are saying, 'If you're going to give us a case, particularly involving incidents several years in the past, that alleged victim better be real believable,' " Mr. Lantzas said.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said that despite the losses, he will not change the way he evaluates and prosecutes teachers for sexual child abuse. He knew the teacher cases would be tough going into them, he said.

"You know that you're going to have a difficult time, because juries just don't want to believe that people they respect are going to commit these kinds of crimes," he said.

Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia Ferris, who prosecuted one of the teachers and heads Mr. Weathersbee's sex offense unit, said the cases are difficult because most jurors come into the courthouse having had positive experiences with at least some teachers in their lives.

"Unlike other professions, everyone has probably had a positive experience with at least one teacher in their life, and every person who sits in a jury box has probably had some positive interaction with a teacher," she said.

She said as defendants, teachers also are able to find excellent character witnesses: other teachers.

Ms. Ferris and other prosecutors say they fear that the losses may have a chilling effect on other victims, making them more reluctant to come forward.

"I hope that 'beyond a reasonable doubt' doesn't mean having to have a confession on national television," she said.

But the teachers and their lawyers say that the acquittals also should send out the message that police and prosecutors must be extremely careful about whom they believe and ask themselves whether they really have a case when it's based on the word of someone who has lied in the past.

The publicity attached to such cases and the trauma of being charged and tried can ruin reputations and lives, they say.

"I lost a year of my life because of this," said Sean Mark Castorina, the 27-year-old wrestling coach from Annapolis acquitted last week.

All four Anne Arundel County defendants -- three county school teachers and Mr. Castorina, who coached at a private school in Prince George's County -- are still waiting word from their respective school boards on whether they will be reinstated.

"It's something a prosecutor has to weigh, and should weigh, extremely carefully," Mr. Lantzas said.

Dennis O'Brien is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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