Man acquitted in sex-abuse case involving a 10-year-old girl Child had accused coach after a soccer practice

February 12, 1997|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County jury has acquitted an Ellicott City man accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl during soccer practice in Howard County last spring.

Thomas M. Webster, 40, was acting as a volunteer assistant coach for a girls' team in the recreation league of the Soccer Association of Columbia in April when the incident allegedly occurred, according to testimony during the two-day trial.

The case was moved to Carroll County because a relative of the girl is an employee in Howard County Circuit Court. To protect her privacy, the girl is not being named.

The jury of five men and seven women deliberated about four hours yesterday before returning the verdict to Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns, finding Webster not guilty of child abuse, battery and third- and fourth-degree sexual offenses.

Webster, whose hunched shoulders noticeably relaxed when the jury foreman firmly said "not guilty" to each count, declined to comment.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Jerry Joyce, a Carroll County assistant state's attorney, asked the jury to choose who was lying -- a girl who claimed the defendant touched her inappropriately and forced her hand to touch him or Webster who, Joyce alleged, misused the trust the girl's parents had placed in him.

Jonathan Scott Smith, a Columbia lawyer representing Webster, gave the jury a third option that allowed it to decide that neither the girl nor the defendant was lying.

Pointing to slight inconsistencies in the child's testimony -- contrasting what she told her mother after the April 25 soccer practice with what she told police four days later and with what she had said during Monday's testimony -- Smith said it was more plausible to believe whatever occurred happened accidentally as his client grabbed the girl's upper arm and pulled her toward a position on the field.

"In her mind, something may have happened, but it was not intentional," Smith said.

The team's head coach, who was directing the practice, testified that he saw nothing unusual during a controlled scrimmage near the end of the practice.

All the players were in the center of the field vying for the ball when, from a distance of about 15 feet, the head coach said he turned his head and saw Webster pulling the girl by the upper arm. The head coach said the girl appeared upset.

After practice a few minutes later, the head coach said, he asked the girl if she was OK, and she said yes. But the look on her face told a different story, he said.

Webster testified that he took the girl by the upper arm and pulled her up the field where he wanted her to be, but denied any suggestion that he had sexually touched her.

Webster said he was "amazed" and "shocked" to learn of the allegations two or three weeks later from a police officer.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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