SEXUAL ABUSE CONVICTIONS REVERSED FOR JUROR MISCONDUCT
Ineffective legal work, juror misconduct cited
By Greg Moran
and Mark Sauer
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS
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. Yesterday his wife of 20 years was elated.
“I have just been inundated with phone calls from so many wonderful people calling in support,” Sydney Jesperson said from her home in Murrieta. “Our family was so excited by this news.”
“We completely believe in his innocence, as we always have,” she said. “We are finally feeling justice is starting to be served and we continue to be hopeful.”
Prosecutors could ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision, or they could put Jesperson on trial a fourth time. 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.
There was no physical evidence supporting the allegations that Jesperson had inappropriately touched the students, and 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.
Eventually, the students said they were touched by Jesperson while they read with him at the front of a classroom. Some said the touching was a light rubbing over their clothes, but others said that the touching was more intimate.
Sevilla said that under repeated questioning by police, school officials and social workers at Rady Children's Hospital, the students' story changed.
“All of them were enhanced over time,” Sevilla said.
In his opinion, Huffman noted that the credibility of the children's accusations were at the core of the case, which he wrote included “evidence of suggestive questioning by parents, social workers and school officials as well as delayed and inconsistent reporting by the children of the alleged inappropriate touchings by Jesperson.”
The trials were also tainted with juror misconduct, Huffman said. In the first trial, one juror repeatedly expressed concern that the mother of one of the students was not being treated well in court. The juror also drew on his own training as a teacher during deliberations, which was improper, Huffman wrote.
During deliberations in the third trial, one juror disclosed details of being molested as a child. He said that when he was interviewed by police, he did not initially tell them everything about the incident. That, too, was improper and biased Jesperson's right to a fair trial, Huffman said.
The panel was also critical that the defense lawyer did not fight harder to keep huge portions of the videotapes of the children out of evidence.
On one tape, a social worker is heard to say “we are here to make sure he (Jesperson) doesn't do that to you or any more kids.” The attorney's poor work meant Jesperson did not receive effective representation at his trial, Huffman wrote.
Justice Patricia Benke disagreed with the ruling backed by Huffman and Justice James McIntyre. She said the jurors had not committed misconduct. Further, she reasoned that defense counsel had legitimate reasons not to object to the videos at the trial because he could use them to question the child witnesses, and the convictions should not be reversed on those grounds.
The faculty at Toler was torn when the allegations regarding Jesperson arose, said school secretary Priscilla Borders.
“I was surprised, certainly. You don't know what is true and what's not,” she said. “I wasn't in that classroom, so I really don't know.
“But there was never any firm decision in my mind that he was guilty,” Borders said. “My only comment is I am happy for him and his family if it turns out to be the case that he will be freed.”