Local News

Ex-headmaster's defense: Sex allegations not crimes

Posted September 26, 2013 2:42 p.m. EDT
Updated September 27, 2013 12:26 p.m. EDT

— A police detective investigating complaints against a Zebulon charter school's headmaster testified Thursday in the former administrator's trial for misdemeanor sex charges that many of the allegations he heard – although inappropriate – were not crimes.

Lt. Scott Finch with the Zebulon Police Department said that several female teachers and employees at East Wake Academy told him in 2012 about Brandon Smith's habit of hugging, inappropriate touching and sexually explicit comments but that most of what he heard did not involve sexual contact – one of the necessary requirements for criminal charges.

"Inappropriate words, alone, wouldn't meet the elements of the crime," Finch said. "Simply words would not meet it."

Smith, who was East Wake's top administrator for nearly 10 years before he was fired last March, faces two charges of sexual battery and two counts of assault on a female stemming from allegations that he hugged a teacher while he had an erection and pulled down the pants of another to view a tattoo on her lower back.

Closing arguments are expected Friday morning. Smith did not testify.

His attorneys argued Thursday that the state offered no evidence to support that the crimes occurred – that Smith didn't know he would become sexually aroused when he hugged the teacher and that he didn't slide down the pants of the other teacher far enough for it to be a sex crime.

WRAL News is not identifying either of the women – both former teachers – due to the sexual nature of the charges in the case. The charges stem from incidents alleged to have occurred in August 2011 and November 2011.

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita, however, said there were elements of sexual gratification in both of the crimes, including a comment in which Smith told the teacher with the tattoo that he "might not be able to control myself."

Defense attorneys have implied that the women at the center of the charges have financial motives – each have filed counter claims to a defamation lawsuit Smith filed against them last year – and that they have changed their stories about what happened.

Most notably, the teacher who was hugged never told police that Smith was sexually aroused. Jurors watched a video of her police interview in which she talked about many of her claims, including hugs, but never mentioned it. Nor did she mention it in a written statement.

"Did you ever read where she had said anything about an erect penis from Brandon Smith?" defense attorney Rob Lane asked Finch Thursday.

"Not that I recall," Finch said.

"And would it be fair to say that, in investigating a sexual crime, that's something that would jump out at you if you saw it in writing?" Lane asked.

"Yes," Finch replied.

The teacher told jurors Wednesday that she didn't use the word because she was uncomfortable with it, but that's what she meant when she wrote "unwanted touching."

Kevin Murray, an assistant headmaster at East Wake, however, testified that the teacher had no problem telling him about a sexually explicit comment she received from another school employee in 2011.

"I was a bit caught off guard and rather surprised by that," Murray said of the comment. "It was kind of just like relating a funny story."

Defense attorneys also noted for jurors that neither Murray nor Darrell Johnson, another assistant headmaster, ever received complaints from the women or any other employee about Smith behaving inappropriately.

Witnesses testified that they were fearful of losing their jobs because of an atmosphere of intimidation that Smith created.

But Johnson had nothing but praise for Smith, testifying that he "ran a tight ship" and that his management style was the reason for the school's success as an accredited "school of excellence."

"(He was a) great leader, a visionary. Passionate," Johnson said. "He was one who could bring passion. He made you think you could do things you normally wouldn't do.'"

Charlotte Kelly, who has known Smith for more than 10 years and has a granddaughter at East Wake Academy, also spoke of Smith with high regard.

She never saw Smith behave inappropriately, she said.

"Brandon made sure that everything he did was all about the children and making sure they got the best in every possible way," she said. "He was able to get more than $9 million for the school, and in my book, that's an A-plus."