School district wins civil case after arguing that girl, 14, could consent to sex with teacher

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A rape-shield law is supposed to prevent sexual abuse victims from being questioned about their sexual history in California criminal trials.

But it doesn’t apply in civil cases. That allowed an attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District to argue before a jury last year that a 14-year-old middle-school student was partly to blame for being sexually abused by a 28-year-old math teacher. Counsel for the district also brought up the teen’s sexual history at trial, reports KPCC.

“She lied to her mother so she could have sex with her teacher,” said trial attorney Keith Wyatt in a post-trial interview with the station. “She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn’t she be responsible for that?”

At the closing of the trial, he contended that the girl, who had allegedly suffered emotional damage and needed counseling, was just after the district’s money:

“She wants to be paid for doing something that she knew was wrong, that she acknowledged was wrong, that she knew was from the beginning,” said Wyatt, adding: “She doesn’t want therapy, she wants money. That’s what they are asking you for.”

The jury found the district not liable, accepting the argument that the school initially didn’t know about the five-month relationship between the girl and the teacher that began in December 2010. Then, once it was disclosed to another teacher by a friend of the victim, the district acted swiftly to remove the math teacher from the classroom, reports the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.).

Hence, the jury didn’t reach the portion of the verdict form in which it was asked to determine whether the 14-year-old was comparatively negligent, KPCC reports.

The teacher, Elkis Hermida, was convicted of lewd acts against a child and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011.

The victim is appealing the jury verdict in the civil case.

News of the verdict resulted in criticism of the school district, its counsel and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Cho, who presided over the case, as well as suggestions that lawmakers should step in to restrict such trial tactics in the future.

The age of consent, as far as criminal cases in California are concerned, is 18. However, state appeals courts have found that, depending on the facts and circumstances, a minor can consent to sex, as the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California explains in a 2009 case relied on by Wyatt.

In response to a public criticism, Wyatt issued two statements Thursday:

“While we are sympathetic of the pain that this type of inappropriate relationship could cause this young woman and her family, the case focused on whether the school district could have done anything to prevent it,” he said in the first. “Trying this case in a respectful manner, but one that allowed the jury to consider the full weight of the facts and evidence, was critical.”

In the second, he apologized, saying: “Upon reflection, I realize how insensitive the comments I made to KPCC were, and I am truly sorry to this young woman and her family. My statements were ill-thought-out and poorly articulated and by no means reflect the opinions of the school district or its leadership. It is regrettable that my remarks have taken away from the respectful manner in which this case was tried.”

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