Ex-teacher at Christian school sentenced for sex crimes

2012-08-09T20:35:00Z 2012-08-09T20:40:03Z Ex-teacher at Christian school sentenced for sex crimesKERANA TODOROV Napa Valley Register
August 09, 2012 8:35 pm  • 

A former teacher at a Napa private school was sentenced Thursday in Napa County Superior Court to five years in state prison for molesting a teenager who was once his student.

Michael Copithorne, a 37-year-old former teacher at Napa Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist school, was convicted in June of multiple felonies including oral copulation and lewd acts on a child. Copithorne, who is physically disabled after a snowboarding accident, has denied all the charges.

The court had received dozens of letters of support of Copithorne from friends, school parents and others. In choosing a prison sentence, Judge J. Michael Byrne cited the teenager’s vulnerability and the age difference between her and Copithorne at the time of the 2010 incidents.

“I think the victim, in this case, was particularly vulnerable,” Byrne said before imposing the sentence.

The 16-year-old girl and her parents watched from the front row. Some two-dozen friends and relatives of Copithorne sat quietly in the courtroom.

After court, the father of the girl issued a statement on behalf of his adopted daughter. “My daughter said that the only reason why she’s gone through all of this was to make sure that no one else is ever bothered by him,” he said.

In court, the teenager, speaking clearly into the microphone, said she forgives Copithorne “for what he’s done to me.” The girl also spoke of the repercussions of the case. She has faced gossip at school, lost friends and suffers from flashbacks, she told the court.

She also addressed Copithorne’s friends and supporters. “You caused me and my family great pain,” she said.

Copithorne’s attorney, James V. Jones, pleaded for probation, citing Copithorne’s lack of a criminal record. But the girl’s mother and prosecutor Lance Hafenstein asked that Copithorne be sent to state prison.

In asking for the maximum prison sentence, five years, Prosecutor Lance Hafenstein cited, among other factors, Copithorne’s lack of remorse. “I’m quite sure he will never admit what he did,” Hafenstein said.

“I think this verdict is a clear message to the defendant and to the Napa Community that preying on our young people will not be tolerated, and will be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law,” Hafenstein said after the sentencing.

Jones did not hide his disappointment. “We are very disappointed,” Jones said after the hearing. “I was just surprised at the severity of his sentence.”

The sentence was imposed a few hours after Byrne denied a defense motion for a new trial that cited alleged jury misconduct. In a court brief, Jones included statements from two jurors who said they were coerced by other jurors to vote guilty.

One of the jurors, Sue Griego of Napa, said after court Thursday she does not believe Copithorne is guilty.

Another juror, whose name was not released by the court, stated in a court filing that she does not believe that Copithorne was guilty. “I was rushed, pushed and pressured, and intimidated into change my vote to guilty.”

“What caused me to change my vote was that I was worn out and worn down by the other jurors. I just couldn’t come up against them any longer. I finally began to cry. When that happened the foreperson demanded ‘What are you crying about?’ I should not have buckled under the pressure and changed my vote to guilty,” she said.

“‘I was told that making decisions is hard for some people, inferring that there was something wrong with my ability to make decisions. I was very upset by the pressure being put upon (me), and by being told I was unreasonable,” she said.

Jones also argued in his brief the evidence against his client was insufficient and that the judge’s rulings prevented the jury from seeing and hearing evidence that might have produced a different verdict.

Byrne rejected arguments for a new trial. Jones told the court that an appeal will be filed.

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