Jury finds former Kirkland basketball coach not guilty of sexual communications with student | Update
By RAECHEL DAWSON
Kirkland Reporter Reporter
March 22, 2013 · 6:06 PM
A former Lake Washington High School basketball coach was found not guilty Friday of charges filed last year for communicating with a minor for immoral sexual purposes.
Following a five-day trial, a jury reached its verdict within five minutes after closing arguments at Kirkland Municipal Court Friday afternoon.
Barry Thatcher Johnson resigned as coach last March after the Lake Washington School District launched an investigation into the allegations.
During the trial, the defense highlighted many inconsistencies in complainant Page Watkins’ statements. The city prosecutor was unable to provide substantial proof that Johnson committed the criminal acts, as they had the burden of showing proof.
James Bible, Johnson’s attorney, said after having reviewed “all of the evidence, interviewed all of the witnesses, collected 122 page statements from [the complainant], it becomes crystal clear that this didn’t happen. Period.”
Johnson, who was also an instructional assistant, was put on leave Dec. 13, 2011 after Watkins, then 17, left her material science class, where Johnson assisted, and told the school counselor and associate principal that Johnson allegedly sexually harassed her for at least one month, according to the charges.
Many of Watkins’ accusations claim that Johnson asked her about her sexual preferences, ranging from her favorite sex position to if she would have sex with an older man.
While most of the claims were unconfirmed, there were two specific instances that raised questions throughout the trial.
The day before Watkins went to the counselor, Johnson interacted with her through a basketball Facebook page he and another student had created without authorization. The conversation was light, except for one instance in which Johnson asks about the drug ketamine, apparently following up from a previous conversation, and then for her phone number.
While Johnson admits he “broke the rules” in creating the page and interacting with Watkins, the single-documented conversation does not indicate a sexual nature.
“I was trying to help and send uplifting positive messages to her like I do with others,” said Johnson while testifying.
A former male student disclosed during testimony that Johnson was a huge factor in the student’s success of staying sober. Although Watkins denied doing drugs, Johnson was concerned since she allegedly has friends who did, and had recently lost a friend to a heroin overdose/suicide in the beginning of that 2011 school year.
Another instance, which supposedly prompted Watkins to go to the counselor, was an incident in the school cafeteria when Johnson allegedly asked her to feel his hands because they were cold and put his arm around her and inadvertently touched her breast. However, the witnesses’ variations of what happened extremely contrasted, with one even saying she didn’t remember Johnson present at all.
During closing arguments, city prosecutor Blakely Warbinton said because Johnson went through training and knew he broke the rules by creating the Facebook page and giving side hugs, that he was above them.
“He doesn’t have to follow the rules. He’s the basketball coach,” she said. “He didn’t think the rules applied to him because he knew what they were and disregarded them. What other rules did he disregard?”
Warbinton brought up teacher Milo Dullum’s testimony that Johnson often socialized with the students and spent a lot of time with Watkins, as Johnson assisted Dullum with the science class.
Her argument on why Watkins was inconsistent in her statements was because she wasn’t good with dates and times.
“Page didn’t remember exactly how the conversation began, but she knows that he asked those specific questions because those are ingrained in her mind,” Warbinton said about the alleged sexual questions.
Because Watkins demeanor was usually outspoken and talkative - Warbinton said - her pensive and uncomfortable manner when she spoke to the counselor showed that she “just wanted it to stop.”
But Bible’s closing argument painted a different picture of a coach trying to help a student with the problems in her life.
“When you get to know your students day in and day out, you start to know their world,” Bible said. “When you’re put in a class with kids that are dealing with what’s in the margins and trying to make sure they graduate, and some are having remarkable struggles, you do what you can to help them.”
Bible said he and Johnson agreed that the former coach broke the policy when he spoke to Watkins through Facebook but “there is a significant distance from a policy violation to a criminal law violation.”
A witness said Johnson spent “70-80 percent” of his time with Watkins but also said he spent the same amount of time with other male students, noting that Watkins would even follow Johnson.
Throughout the time they did spend together, Bible recounts Dullum said that he never noticed any hair pulling or chair kicking - some of Watkins’ flirtatious claims - and that he was a mandatory reporter and would have gone straight to administration if it had occurred.
Additionally, Bible stated a former student, who sat next to Watkins in the material science class, said Watkins lied and when she found out about the investigation, she tried to go to the school and law enforcement to tell them.
“Even more interestingly, Page tried to explain away to [the student] why she wouldn’t have heard anything,” Bible said to the jury. “By explaining ‘Oh, it was all on Facebook.’ That was the impression she was left with.
“Now, you have the one Facebook post, you have the only one. There’s not a conversation about sexual positions or anything like that.”
As Bible continued for nearly an hour, there was an emotionally-stricken silence as he spoke about the importance of having an adult care about the well-being of his students. Later, after the verdict was read, Bible explained Johnson’s father helped Bible through a difficult time when he was his basketball coach.
“Sometimes when you don’t have these folks or people that are prepared to do that, then people sometimes end up in prison when they could end up in college, or in the streets when they could end up lawyers,” said Bible, who has known Johnson since he was 14 years old. “He’s got a really big heart, just like his father, who was my basketball coach when I needed help the most.”
Bible speculates all the parties involved let their emotions take over when the investigation was done because of the “climate of the time” in which the allegations were made. As far as why Watkins made such claims, he can only speculate, but he “hopes that at some point [Watkins] gets some of the help she needs.”
Contact Kirkland Reporter Reporter Raechel Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-822-9166 X5052.