The solemn expressions on jurors’ faces hinted at the verdicts before they were read Tuesday in the case against St. Joseph High School Principal Joseph Myers and former Dean of Students John Walker.
Both men were found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report to law enforcement information they received last year regarding the rape of a student, then 16 years old.
The jury acquitted Walker of a separate misdemeanor count for allegedly failing to report the rape of another student who was then 14 years old, which allegedly happened early this year.
State law requires both men, as educators, to report suspected child abuse or sexual assault to law enforcement authorities.
However, the defense argued that the defendants were only following the wishes of the victims’ families and were told that the assault of the 16-year-old had already been reported to law enforcement. The families of the two girls reportedly asked the administrators to look after the girls at school but not to tell law enforcement, because they felt the girls weren’t emotionally ready to pursue charges.
Two 18-year-old former St. Joseph High students have each been charged in one of the rapes and are awaiting trial.
The reading of the verdicts by a court clerk took place Tuesday shortly after 3 p.m. following a week-long trial before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Edward Bullard in Santa Maria. The nine-man, three-woman jury started deliberating the case Monday afternoon.
Upon hearing the guilty verdict, the courtroom erupted with barely contained emotion as the now 17-year-old alleged victim doubled over in tears in her seat.
Others in the courtroom audience also wept, and Myers and Walker were visibly stunned.
The men were free to leave the courtroom, as they have not been held in custody, and are scheduled to return to court Oct. 30 for sentencing.
Outside the courtroom, the mother of a former St. Joseph student and even the father of one of the alleged rape victims spoke in support of the two men, and a defense attorney complained that the conviction was inappropriate because “two good men tried to do what they thought was right.”
Myers and Walker face a maximum possible sentence of six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine, but the judge can use discretion when sentencing the men.
Bullard has also been presented with letters written by community members that attest to Walker’s and Myers’ good character, for his consideration regarding sentencing.
The District Attorney’s Office, however, said the verdict was important and precedent-setting, as it was the first case of its kind in Santa Maria that prosecutors can remember.
“We just want to thank the jury for their service,” said Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson, who was assigned to the case.
“I think we’re very hopeful that it does open a discourse for teachers and schools, maybe even all over the state, to take their reporting (responsibility) very seriously, and to make sure that they’re following the letter of the law and not substituting their own judgment.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees the private Catholic school in Orcutt, issued a similar statement in a written statement.
“This case serves as a reminder to all educators to review again the mandated reporting laws of the State of California, which are also enshrined in the policies and procedures of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,” said spokesman Tod Tamberg.
“Now that the verdict is in, the related personnel matters will be evaluated by the Archdiocese with St. Joseph High School.”
Myers had been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the case, and Walker’s employment with the school ended before he was charged last summer.
Walker said Tuesday that he had to leave St. Joseph because his contract was not renewed for another year, and he is unemployed.
“I wasn’t the right guy for the job,” he added, without elaborating further.
Myers said Tuesday after the verdict that he didn’t know what the future holds for his job at St. Joseph High.
His attorney, Michael Scott, said he and his client would live with the jury’s decision even though they were disappointed.
“Two good men tried to do what they thought was right, to protect the child and honor the child and the parents’ wishes. That rubs up against the law,” he said.
“Rarely do you have people with good intentions trying to do the right thing, and everyone agrees that they did the right thing except the prosecution,” Scott added.
A clearly rattled Walker said outside the court complex that he felt he helped protect the lives of the two girls after he learned of the sexual assault allegations, and said he prepared the 17-year-old student to deal with life’s challenges.
“For the rest of her life, when she has adversity, when she’s got to face issues that are so big, she’s strong enough to do it. She’s tough enough to do it. She can handle it.”
“It is what it is,” Walker said later. “I’ll let the chips fall where they may. I’ll pay my punishment like a man, because those two kids are alive.”
Walker went on to say he would protect a student again if faced with a similar situation.
Regarding mandated reporting laws, Walker said, “that’s another issue that we all learned about. We learned where the gray areas are in the law.”
“The real criminals, their trials are coming up in a couple months. I’m not them. I’m not a criminal.”
Walker was joined by supporters, who included former St. Joseph High parent Cheryl Salazar.
“He blessed my daughter’s life at St. Joseph High School. He is the most incredible, kind-hearted, special person you’ll ever meet, and this is a travesty today,” she said.
“He was the reason you sent your kid to St. Joseph High School,” Salazar added. She said she also supported Myers and his decision.
The father of the 17-year-old alleged victim has also spoken out in support of Myers and Walker, and did so again on Tuesday.
“Two men were convicted today for morally doing the right thing,” he said. “They were unable to defend themselves fairly due to the limitations of the court hearing.”
The father continued, “we hope that future victims are not revictimized and used as Power Point presentations for political or career-climbing opportunities, as our daughter was. All parents are now left without two heroes who dedicated their lives to protecting and educating this community’s children. It’s a sad day on the Central Coast.”