LOS ANGELES » The Los Angeles school district on Friday removed a lawyer who successfully defended it in a sexual abuse lawsuit in which he told jurors that a 14-year-old girl who had sex with a male teacher shared responsibility despite her age.
The trial victory spared the cash-strapped district a potentially pricey verdict, but news of the trial strategy and remarks by attorney W. Keith Wyatt that it was a more dangerous decision to cross the street than to have sex with a teacher drew criticism.
"Mr. Wyatt’s comments yesterday were completely inappropriate, and they undermine the spirit of the environment we strive to offer our students every day," Dave Holmquist, general counsel for the school district, said in a statement. "Our deepest apologies go out to the young woman and her family, who were hurt by the insensitive remarks of Mr. Wyatt."
Wyatt, who had worked with the district through an outside firm for 27 years and had 18 cases pending, would not comment.
The girl who lost the case is appealing because the judge allowed evidence of her sexual history to be presented and because Wyatt blamed her for consenting to the sex even though she was too young to do so.
"She lied to her mother so she could have sex with her teacher," Wyatt had told KPCC, which first reported the story. "She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn’t she be responsible for that?
The teacher in the case, Elkis Hermida, was sentenced in 2011 to three years in prison for lewd acts against a child.
The Los Angeles Unified School District claimed it was unaware of the relationship between the teacher and student and was cleared last year of wrongdoing by a civil jury in Los Angeles Superior Court. The girl was not awarded damages for the emotional trauma she said she suffered during a five-month relationship with the teacher.
The case exposed an apparent inconsistency in the standard for sexual consent in California criminal and civil cases.
In criminal cases, a 14-year-old girl is too young to consent to sex with an adult. Wyatt, however, cited a federal court decision that said a minor could consent to sex in some circumstances.
The federal case cited by Wyatt relies on a California Supreme Court decision about jury instructions in an incest case, said Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington. The creative application of the language was probably never envisioned by the state’s high court.
"Some language plucked out of the original case has grown to monstrous proportions," Fan said. "Pretty soon it looks like a viable argument. When a court accepts it, it just grows into its own beast."
Lawyers and advocates for sexual abuse victims said the legal tactic was surprising.
"I was shocked. I’ve done sexual abuse cases against school districts before and I’ve never seen the persistence of this argument," said Holly Boyer, who filed the appeal for the girl. "I’ve never seen this at all that the victim willingly participated in this and that they should bear some responsibility in their injuries."
While Wyatt had argued that the teacher and girl went to extreme lengths to hide their relationship, Boyer said there were enough warning signs that the school should have been aware of the teacher’s conduct.
He was seen hugging other girls and began to groom the victim at age 13 through texting, phone calls and exchanging photos, Boyer said, adding the sexual abuse began when the girl was 14 and some of it occurred in the classroom.
Boyer also plans to argue that the girl’s sexual past should not have been allowed into evidence. Typically, such evidence is barred in criminal cases by rape shield laws, but not always in civil actions.
"It’s terrible, but not unusual that a school would try to muddy the waters" by presenting such evidence, said Fatima Goss Graves, a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center. "The law on whether and when that sort of evidence is permitted is sort of murky and one of the reasons why Congress is looking at additional law … that looks more like a criminal rape shield law."