NEWS: Appeals Court Reverses Teacher's Sex Crime Conviction
Oct 07, 2014

NAPA, CA ( - Citing a number of errors during the trial, a California appeals court has thrown out the guilty verdict against a Napa teacher who was sentenced to five years in state prison in 2012 for molesting one of his former students.

Michael Raymond Copithorne was a teacher at Napa Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Napa, when the former student accused him of sex crimes. In June 2012, a Napa County Superior Court jury found Copithorne guilty of oral copulation of a child under the age of 16 and three counts of lewd acts upon a child.

The First District Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed the verdict, citing cumulative errors made during the trial."In light of the cumulative effect of the various errors committed during trial, we conclude it is reasonably probable that the jury would have reached a result more favorable to appellant on all counts absent of those errors," the Court of Appeals stated.

The Court of Appeals found the trial judge, Michael Byrne, erred when it gave improper jury verdict instructions that two of the three lewd act counts occurred "on and around" a range of dates, at a time the owner of an exotic fly-fishing booking agency testified Copithorne was on an organized fishing trip in Belize.

Copithorne, who is now 40, was a professional athlete in 2000 when his vertebrae were shattered in a snowboarding accident. Authorities said Copithorne, who uses a wheelchair, molested the teen in the back of his truck in a parking lot. A surveillance video shown to the jury showed Copithorne getting in and out of his truck.

While the prosecutor, Napa County Deputy District Attorney Lance Hafenstein, asserted Copithorne was very athletic, the defense, James V. Jones, of Napa, maintained Copithorne, who has rods in his back and cannot sit on a hard surface without risking serious injury, could not have pushed himself to the back of the truck because of he is paralyzed from the navel down.

While the jury was allowed to inspect the pickup truck in the back the Criminal Courthouse, Copithorne was not allowed to demonstrated how he got in and out of the truck.

The Appeals Court ruled the trial court "prejudicially abused its discretion" when it refused to allow the defendant to show how he gets in and out of his truck with his wheelchair and his physical inability to move inside the vehicle.

The appeals court also found the psychological records of the teenager, who was 16 during the trial, should have been disclosed.Cliff Gardner, the Berkeley –based attorney who represented Copithorne before the District Court of Appeals, on Tuesday said he would have been shocked had the appeals court ruled against his client. "The evidence of culpability was so thin," he said.

The California Attorney General could ask for a re-hearing in front of the Court of Appeals or take the case to the California Supreme Court.

Once the Court of Appeals' issues its final order, the Napa County District Attorney could re-try the case in Napa County Superior Court or drop the case, Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said Tuesday his office is reviewing its options.

"We respectfully disagree with the court's decision. We're certainly disappointed by their decision. We felt Mr. Copithorne had a fair trial."In the meantime, Copithorne remains at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, according to the California Department of Corrections' website.

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