by BOB EGELKO
Oct 04, 2014
NAPA, CA (SFGate) - A state appeals court has overturned a Napa schoolteacher's molesting conviction and five-year prison sentence, saying the trial judge's erroneous rulings undermined the defendant's alibi and his attempt to show the jury that his physical injuries - including a broken back - made his accuser's claims implausible.
Michael Copithorne, a longtime instructor at Napa Christian School, was convicted in 2012 of three counts of lewd and lascivious conduct and one count of oral copulation of a youth under 16, a girl who had been his student in the sixth through eighth grades. He remains in prison.The girl, identified by the court only as Jane Doe, was 14 at the time of the incidents in 2010. She testified that Copithorne, whom she had known since kindergarten and considered a good friend, let her kiss him on the cheek after class one day, and responded with a long kiss on her lips. She said the same thing happened twice more, the last time after she sat on his lap.Several months later, she said, he gave her a ride in his truck, took her to a parking lot, lifted himself into the back seat, fondled her and licked her vagina.
Copithorne denied the accusations and presented witnesses who said he had a reputation for honesty while Jane Doe was mentally troubled and known to make up stories. The defendant, who uses a wheelchair because of a fractured spine - but was described by the prosecutor as "very athletic" - said his disabilities would have made his alleged maneuvers in the truck either severely painful or impossible. He also produced records that appeared to show he had not been at the school on the two days in March when she said the first two kissing episodes took place.
But Superior Court Judge J. Michael Byrne told the jury that the kissing incidents, the basis for two of the charges, were alleged to have happened "on or around February 2010 to May 2010" rather than on specific dates. He also refused to let Copithorne climb into his truck and move around in the back seat in the jurors' presence, saying such a demonstration would not produce reliable evidence.
On Thursday, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said Byrne's rulings had denied Copithorne a fair trial.
The judge's "on or around" language allowed the jury to ignore Jane Doe's testimony about when the incidents took place and to disregard Copithorne's alibi, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in a 3-0 decision that entitles Copithorne to a new trial. He said Byrne also should have let the jury watch Copithorne in his truck and decide whether he was exaggerating his injuries.
"This was an extremely close case, which centered on the credibility of (Copithorne) and Jane Doe," Kline said. He said Byrne's errors "affected the jury's determination of who was telling the truth.
"Copithorne's lawyer, Clifford Gardner, said the justices made it clear in the ruling that "they thought, as I do, that Michael is innocent. I'm hoping that the district attorney will take that to heart" and drop the charges, he said.