February 13, 2010 in City

Jury clears Morning Star in first sex abuse lawsuit

Next of 18 more cases scheduled to begin in May
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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On the Web: Find complete coverage of the trial at spokesman.com/ sections/morning-star

A unanimous jury ruled against plaintiff Kenneth Putnam on Friday, handing victory to Morning Star Boys’ Ranch in the first of 19 sex abuse lawsuits to go to trial.

Putnam, who was a resident at the group home for troubled boys in 1988 and ’89, claimed the ranch’s former director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, and now-deceased counselor Doyle Gillum molested him.

“I am very pleased and tremendously happy for Father Weitensteiner,” defense attorney Jim King said. “Father Weitensteiner is a good man and did not do the things that are claimed.”

King added that publicity during the five years since the first abuse lawsuit against Morning Star was filed has “impugned the reputation” of a man who spent 50-plus years working for troubled children and the community

He also said he was happy for Gillum, who was killed in an automobile accident in December 1994, and for those who knew and loved him.

Neither Weitensteiner nor his accuser was present Friday when the jury’s verdict was read. Morning Star director Richard Petersen and financial director Dan Kuhlmann were visibly delighted with the outcome of the monthlong trial.

Putnam’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, said that while he respected the jury’s verdict, it would be a mistake to perceive it as a vindication of Weitensteiner or Morning Star.

“While disappointed, we understand that (jurors) could have doubts because they weren’t allowed to hear all the evidence,” Kosnoff said. “We remain hopeful when the next jury is impaneled, that it will be allowed to hear more of the evidence than was admitted in this case.”

King said that he intended to defend Morning Star and Weitensteiner in every case that goes to trial.

A critical moment in Putnam’s case occurred before a jury was even seated, when Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled on a pretrial motion by King and attorney Robert Sestero seeking to prevent the testimony of other Morning Star plaintiffs.

O’Connor delivered a split decision, ruling that only four of the other plaintiffs – those who say they reported what happened to them at the time of their alleged abuse – would be allowed to testify to support Putnam’s contention that the ranch knew or should have known about ongoing abuse and did nothing to stop it.

Kosnoff’s Seattle firm represents 15 of the plaintiffs. The attorney said he brought Putnam’s case first because the other plaintiffs were potential witnesses who could have testified about events that occurred before Putnam was at Morning Star.

Midway through the trial, O’Connor admitted the testimony of an additional, unexpected witness. Michael Clarke, who’s currently incarcerated at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, said Weitensteiner paid him $2,000 in 2006 to remain silent about his alleged abuse by the priest while Clarke was a resident of the ranch in 1978-80.

King attacked the credibility of each witness, citing documentary evidence of dishonesty, drug use or criminal convictions.

But the testimony that might have done the most harm to Putnam’s case was his own. Putnam appeared indignant and at times petulant as King confronted him with inconsistencies between his trial testimony and transcripts of his earlier depositions.

Kosnoff – faced with bringing to trial the case of a man whose social or psychological problems may be the result of his alleged abuse – acknowledged that the jury must “have worked very hard” over three and half days of deliberation to resolve doubts about Putnam’s inconsistencies.

“This case is built on circumstantial evidence and (the jurors) didn’t get to hear a vast amount of circumstantial evidence that we had,” Kosnoff said.

As the trial drew to a close, O’Connor refused to admit the testimony of three witnesses who Kosnoff said would have rebutted Weitensteiner’s testimony that he never saw any abuse at Morning Star. All three would have said Weitensteiner saw abuse because it was he who committed it, Kosnoff told the judge outside of the jury’s presence.

O’Connor was at a conference in Seattle on Friday, and Judge Michael Price stepped in to read the verdict. It was Price who earlier divided the massive case into 19 separate lawsuits at the request of Morning Star’s attorneys.

The jury answered “no” to each question put to it, finding that there was no negligence claim stemming from failure of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch to warn or protect Putnam from childhood sexual abuse. The ranch did not inflict emotional distress on Putnam or conspire to conceal its knowledge of sexual abuse from the plaintiff and civil authorities, the jurors decided.

On Thursday, two jurors were expelled and replaced by alternates for talking about the case outside of deliberations.

Next up for trial is the case of George H. Minehart II, a former ranch resident who also names Weitensteiner as one of his abusers. Minehart’s case is scheduled to go to trial on May 3.

Minehart’s attorney, Martin Gales, said he has Morning Star documents that support his client’s case, and intends to go forward as scheduled.

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