When Paul Mather took the stand Thursday to defend himself against sexual misconduct charges, he did not have to answer accusations that he had sex with a 16-year-old several years ago.
Despite repeated requests from Kootenai County prosecutors, Judge Gary Haman would not allow a jury to hear evidence that the middle school teacher had sex with a Post Falls teenager in 1989.
Mather, 49, is now charged with two counts of sexual abuse for allegedly touching the breasts and buttocks of two middle school students while he was hugging them last year. Thursday was the fourth day of trial for the geography teacher at Canfield Middle School.
“Yes I touched them. I’d hug them from the front. I’d hug them in bear hugs from the back. I’d hug them from the side,” Mather told the jury. But he said the hugs were never meant in a sexual way. “I’d hug them like a parent would hug them.”
The judge’s decision Thursday was a boon to Mather’s defense attorney, who is concerned the previous allegations would unfairly bias the jury. But it upset parents of the girls who are taking on a teacher they once trusted.
“It’s pretty hard to get at the truth when all the truth isn’t before the jury,” said one parent. “It’s like, ‘OK, prosecutor, we’re going to tie one hand behind your back and have you fight George Foreman.”’ Five teenage girls, three of whom were Mather’s class aides, say his strange behavior started last spring. They say the teacher pressed his body against theirs and sometimes touched their breasts and buttocks. Other times he would straddle their legs and rub their thighs.
Teachers, students and other school officials have taken the stand to defend Mather and his hugs. “Paul is a special teacher to kids,” said Bill Pratt, a coach and Canfield teacher. “They literally line up for hugs.”
Mather said he hugged his students and told them he loved them as a form of positive reinforcement.
“In any of these hugs have you accidentally brushed their breasts or buttocks?” deputy prosecutor Joel Hazel asked in court Thursday.
“It’s possible, but I was unaware of it,” Mather responded.
“Would you agree that if you hugged a student from behind and cupped their breast that would be inappropriate?” Hazel asked.
“That’s absolutely inappropriate,” Mather said, denying he ever did it.
In 1989, police investigated allegations that Mather had sex with a 16-year-old girl he met in an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Although Mather’s wife told investigators that he had admitted having sex with the girl, the case was never prosecuted. The teenager decided she didn’t want to press rape charges. In a previous interview, the girl’s mother said the family feared the pressures of a trial would push the girl back into drugs. The woman said her daughter also felt sorry for Mather.
When Mather took the stand, Hazel tried to ask the teacher about a letter he’d written to school officials last year. In the letter, Mather said he had never hugged a student with sexual intent. Hazel said he hoped that letter would give him the right to ask Mather about the 1989 incident.
But the prosecution’s repeated attempts to bring up the matter eventually angered Judge Haman. The judge has said several times that allowing jurors to hear of the incident might jeopardize Mather’s right to a fair trial. The Idaho Supreme Court could then overturn any potential conviction.
“I could get a hammer and come down and hit you over the head with it if that would make it clearer,” the frustrated judge told the prosecutors when the jury was out of the room. “Back off.”
However, during the prosecution’s rebuttal case Thursday, Canfield Principal James Lien told jurors that he had warned Mather about touching students in 1993.
“I suggested that he not touch, even on the shoulder,” Lien said.
The attorneys finished presenting their cases Thursday. They are expected to start closing arguments this morning.
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