The Grade Blog

Tuesday, Apr 09 2013 06:32 PM

Mistrial declared in autistic sexual assault case

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

A Kern County Superior Court judge has declared a mistrial in a civil suit against the Kern High School District by an autistic teenager's family who says she was sexually assaulted at Independence High School.

The jury trial began last Wednesday before Judge Lorna Brumfield, who in pre-trial hearings and in private sidebars had repeatedly warned family attorney Ralph Wegis not to use the word "rape" in front of the jury.

The judge had disallowed any implication that a hospital exam conducted eight hours after the alleged assault uncovered evidence of rape because there was no expert testimony to that effect. A nurse who examined the girl was among the witnesses scheduled to testify, but she was not a "designated expert" on rape, and the Kern County District Attorney's Office never filed criminal charges.

In an email Tuesday, an attorney from the KHSD legal team, Kristen Ford, said the mistrial was declared due to "unsupported claims of rape and other misconduct of plaintiff's legal counsel and her father."

Neither Wegis nor the girl's father could be reached for comment late Tuesday.

The Bakersfield Californian generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault, particularly if they are minors. In the legal complaint, the now 18-year-old girl is identified as "Jane Doe."

The girl's parents filed a civil lawsuit against KHSD in 2010 alleging Independence didn't immediately notify them that their daughter had been assaulted, didn't get her medical attention and didn't talk to the Bakersfield Police Department until after the parents notified authorities.

The district had maintained that because the girl's disability prevents her from fully comprehending the concept of sexual violation, there was a limit to how much she understood or even remembered about the incident, and there was no evidence of penetration.

A teacher's aide heard noises -- the district said whining, the family said screaming -- coming from a bathroom and discovered the girl naked from the waist down along with a fellow special education student on Oct. 15, 2009.

The girl was a 15-year-old 10th-grader at the time, but both she and the then-14-year-old autistic boy who allegedly attacked her are essentially non-verbal and have the intellectual capacity of preschoolers.

The pair were discovered at 11:29 a.m., but the parents weren't notified of the incident until a 4:09 p.m. phone call. In the meantime, both students had gone on with their school day as well as an afterschool program.

Since that day, Wegis argued, the girl has regressed in her development and is frightened and withdrawn.

The family was seeking unspecified damages and money to pay for psychological counseling and speech therapy to help the girl communicate her feelings.

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