Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Problems in case of Thad Jesperson, teacher accused of molestation

See update on Thad Jesperson case.

I have no way of knowing the truth in this case. I know that prosecutors and law enforcement will usually do what school officials ask them to do, and that school officials often make thoughtless or politically-motivated accusations. On the other hand, I also know that "well-regarded" teachers are sometimes the most confident that they can get away with violating the law. In this case, there simply was no rational evidence to support the charges. The appeals court had to overturn this man's convictions.

Molestation convictions reversed for ex-teacher

Ineffective legal work, juror misconduct cited
By Greg Moran
and Mark Sauer
September 13, 2007

A state appeals court reversed yesterday the 2004 child molestation convictions of a popular Toler Elementary School teacher who is serving a prison sentence of 15 years to life after three separate trials.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego was the latest turn in the emotionally charged case of Thad Jesperson, or “Mr. J” as he was known to many at the Clairemont school, which is in the San Diego Unified School District.

Jesperson was put on trial three times by San Diego prosecutors on charges relating to the alleged molestation of eight second-and third-grade students in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years.

His convictions involved four of those girls. Charges relating to the other four children were either dropped by prosecutors or ended in acquittals or jury deadlocks.

In an 80-page ruling, Justice Richard Huffman wrote that the verdict had to be thrown out because of a combination of misconduct by jurors and ineffective legal work by Jesperson's lawyer. The defense lawyer did not prevent jurors from hearing videotaped interviews of the children that Huffman said were filled with prejudicial and irrelevant comments.

In the face of the allegations, Jesperson always insisted he was innocent...

A spokesman for the San Diego District Attorney's Office said yesterday the office was reviewing the decision and weighing its next step. In the meantime, Jesperson remains in state prison in Kings County.

Jesperson was arrested in April 2003 and was convicted in December 2004 at the age of 40. He had no record or previous allegations against him in his career, and had been a well-regarded teacher at Toler for five years.

Charles Sevilla, Jesperson's lawyer for the appeal, said in court papers the case had its origins on Toler's playground, where several students, including three of the later accusers, were talking at recess in late 2002. One mentioned that Jesperson had touched her on the shoulder a year earlier.

Another student said that it was child molestation and they should tell someone.
Several weeks later, the mother of one of the children contacted the school and police, triggering the investigation.

... no witnesses ever corroborated the accusations, according to the appellate court opinion. When first questioned by San Diego detectives, the children who made the initial accusations denied anything happened...

The Education of Mr. J.

San Diego Magazine
By Mark Sauer
May 2008
Concern among Toler parents was spurred by letters sent home saying a teacher was suspected of molesting students. The letters urged parents to question their children, a red flag to many child-abuse experts. In high-profile false-accusation cases a generation ago, badgering by parents and misguided therapists led to fantastic stories by youngsters of not only sexual abuse but also blood rituals and animal sacrifice in classrooms. The notorious Dale Akiki prosecution in San Diego and the McMartin Preschool case in suburban Los Angeles were two of the more famous among at least 100 such “witch hunt” prosecutions across America.

San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis vigorously defends the decision to prosecute Jesperson. She says lessons learned from the phony case against Akiki provided safeguards against false allegations in the investigation at Toler Elementary School.

Dumanis says the Jesperson case was vetted by a panel of experienced prosecutors. Her team decided the girls’ statements were strong enough to convince jurors of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution’s ultimate success on that score was decidedly mixed, however.

As prosecutor Tracy Prior, an 11-year veteran in the Family Protection Division, told the court, the “entire case rides on the backs of 9- and 10-year-olds.” There was no corroborating evidence, and there were no independent witnesses against Jesperson. The issue of suggestibility played a prominent role at trial...

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