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Mistrial ends child molestation case against former Kent substitute teacher

2019 kindergarten class incident with 6-year-old student

A judge declared a mistrial in a first-degree child molestation charge against a former Kent School District substitute teacher when a King County Superior Court jury couldn’t reach a verdict, leading to mixed reactions from both sides of the case.

King County prosecutors filed the charge in June 2019 against John DeVeiteo, of Kent, then 72 years old and accused of allegedly having sexual contact with a 6-year-old girl in an Emerald Park Elementary School kindergarten class.

The father of the girl had a strong reaction about the justice system after the Aug. 23 mistrial.

“It failed our daughter terribly,” he said during a Sept. 7 phone interview.

The Kent Reporter is not using the name of the father to protect the identity of the girl.

“It’s hard to handle, to stick through this and get that decision,” he said. “It was a hard blow.”

Defense attorney Jennifer Atwood, of the Seattle-based Law Office of Amy Muth, said DeVeiteo looks forward to moving on with his life.

“Mr. DeVeiteo dedicated nearly 40 years of his life to working with young people in both sports and education, and it is devastating to him that even though nearly all the jurors acquitted him of this crime, the damage this false accusation has brought to his reputation and work can never be undone,” Atwood said in an email. “He would like to move on, as best he can, and focus on time with his family and enjoying his retirement.”

DeVeiteo worked as a substitute teacher at multiple schools in the Kent School District between February 2018 and June 2019, according to charging documents.

Prosecutors and the parents of the girl agreed they would not retry the case.

“I don’t think the results would be any different to retry,” the father said after he consulted with prosecutors. “There’s no new evidence if we retry it that it would be different.”

Atwood said one juror thought DeVeiteo was guilty but the rest saw things their way.

“Mr. DeVeiteo is a kind and humble man,” she said. “He is also innocent of this crime.”

The alleged incident

The alleged incident occurred on June 4, 2019, in a classroom when the rest of the students were released for recess, according to court documents. The student asked DeVeiteo, known as Mr. D, if he needed help with anything. DeVeiteo told the girl she could stay and help him.

DeVeiteo reportedly put a cartoon on his laptop and had the girl sit on his lap to watch it. DeVeiteo then allegedly had his arms around her and put his hand inside the front of her pants.

The father of the girl called called 911 on June 4, 2019, to report a sexual assault earlier in the day at the school. The girl told her parents what happened after they had asked about her day at school, according to charging papers.

After hearing about how the teacher had his daughter sit on his lap watching a cartoon while other kids were at recess, the father asked his daughter questions about the difference between a “good touch and bad touch.” She replied a touch on a shoulder was a good touch, but that a touch of her privacy area was a bad touch. She told her father when the teacher touched her privacy area, she yelled, “Stop,” and he stopped.

A child interview specialist with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office talked to the girl a day after the incident. The girl told the specialist that “Mr. D did something bad like a bad touch.” She then described in detail how the teacher touched her private body part. She said she had him as a teacher on other days as well.

The regular teacher of the class told detectives she had used DeVeiteo as a sub in the past and had no problems with him. The teacher left a lesson plan for the sub to follow as well as a district laptop.

School district information technology staff examined the district computer used by DeVeiteo in the classroom and found YouTube videos consistent with those described by the student and had been viewed at the alleged time of the incident. The girl described the cartoon as a bug that was chained up and broke out and that there was a mean guy with a gun.

Kent police contacted DeVeiteo. He declined to speak with the investigating detective on the advice of his attorney, according to charging papers.

DeVeiteo pleaded not guilty to the charge on July 3, 2019.

The trial

The girl and her parents each took the stand during the trial, which was delayed until this summer due to COVID-19 and a backlog of cases.

“It was tough for me to take the stand,” the father said when asked about his daughter’s testimony. “She told a room full of strangers how she was assaulted. …we noticed some empowerment in her from confronting him.”

The father said a lack of physical evidence hampered the prosecution’s case. He said the school has cameras in the hallways to show when people come and go, but there are no cameras in the classroom.

“The jury couldn’t convict on the testimony of a 6 year old,” he said.

The father said it’s time for cameras in the classroom.

“It might not have happened or the (trial) outcome would be different,” the father said. “It would’ve changed everything.”

A child witness expert seemed to strongly influence the case as the jury decided whether the girl accurately described what happened that day in the classroom.

“The term ‘child hearsay’ is in reference to a specific statute and body of case law which permits the state to use statements a child under 10 makes to other witnesses, like teachers, coaches, or parents, that describe sexual abuse, provided that they are found to be reliable,” said Atwood, the defense attorney. “The court (Judge Maureen McKee) concluded that those statements the student made in this case were not reliable because they were the product of suggestive questioning.

“However, the statements were admitted at trial under other evidence rules and the jury was able to hear the student’s statements to her parents and others.”

Daniel Reisberg, a researcher in psychology, testified about memory and specifically the functioning and biology of children’s memory, according to court documents. Reisberg earned a psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania and was a professor primarily at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, prior to retiring. He has served as an expert witness in numerous trials over the years, from murder to sex abuse cases, according to Reed magazine.

Reisberg, who has received many honors and awards and has published many books on the processing of knowledge and memory, testified that there is a process in which information is processed and changed, according to court documents.

He said young children are more suggestible and more easily influenced by external information including information they overhear or questions they are asked. Due to different stages of development in different areas of a child’s brain, the child’s memory may be more easily altered, and therefore is less reliable.

Reisberg said the girl’s parents engaged in completely well-intentioned, responsible questioning during their after-school conversation. But he did find that there was a risk that her memory was not reliable, in part because of the questions asked of her by her parents.

The father of the girl said when he and his wife took the stand, the defense attorney questioned them over and over about that day after the alleged incident and what they said to their daughter and what she said in response.

“It was like they used (the conversations) against us and that led her to saying this,” the father said. “They used it against us being a parent and doing what we are supposed to do. …with potentially leading questions. …We’d be on the stand and it was like we did something.”

Judge McKee denied the state’s motion to admit child hearsay, the father said. He said this meant the jury did not review the child forensic interview that was collected the very next day after the incident.

Reisberg testified that what the girl told the child interview specialist took place after the girl’s statements and memory were likely influenced by her parents.

“In addition to a child witness interview expert who testified authoritatively on how the student’s memory was strongly influenced by suggestive questioning from trusted adults, there was also significant and detailed evidence, including video surveillance, that contradicted the statements made by the student,” Atwood said.

The girl’s father said it was almost like his daughter’s statements were misconstrued because she said them so matter of factly. He said she is a very bright and credible child.

“And she testified in court against him,” the father said. “She was strong enough to do that.”

The father said his daughter is doing good.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “We got her some help to get through this.”

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