By Mollee Francisco
There were plenty of tears, smiles and hugs outside of Carver County Courtroom No. 2 Monday afternoon as former Chaska High School teacher Julia Lund let a “not guilty” verdict sink in.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lund, an English Language Learners teacher, was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct last December after a 17-year-old male student alleged that the two had an inappropriate relationship. Third-degree criminal sexual conduct involves sexual acts with a minor between 16 and 18 years of age with someone who is more than four years older and in a position of authority.
Lund’s trial began on July 10. The jury was selected last Wednesday and began hearing evidence on Thursday. Following Monday morning’s closing statements, it took less than two hours for the group of 12 to come back with a verdict in Lund’s favor.
“She’s overwhelmed,” said her attorney Robert Sicoli following the reading of the verdict.
“We feel justified,” he added. “My client is very, very relieved.”
At the conclusion of the trial, Sicoli held steadfast to his belief that this case was more of a civil matter than a criminal matter. “It should have never been prosecuted as a criminal case,” he said.
But Carver County Assistant Attorney Mike Wentzell still believes otherwise.
“There’s nothing I would have done differently,” he said. “The state believes that a teacher’s position of authority continues beyond the school walls when a teacher actively solicits a student at school.”
During the course of the trial, the prosecution called 12 witnesses to the stand and introduced 29 pieces of evidence. The defense relied on the state’s burden of proof, calling no witnesses and resting its case just moments after the prosecution did.
While Sicoli did not argue that what occurred between Lund and the student was right, he did question whether it was criminal.
“There’s probably going to be some things Ms. Lund did that you’re not going to like,” Sicoli warned the jury early on in the case.
“I ask that you put aside moral thoughts and keep an open mind,” he continued, arguing that Lund did not sexually abuse the student and was not in a position of authority when they met outside of school.
On the stand, the alleged victim said that although he wasn’t a student in any of her classes, Lund pursued him at CHS, beginning with eye contact in the hallways and continuing with a request for him to call her.
“I asked her why she wanted me to call her,” he testified. “She said she was lonely, that her husband was gone a lot, and she needed someone to talk to.”
Those phone calls, the student testified, led to Lund and him meeting on Oct. 31, 2006, at Hidden Ponds Park in Eden Prairie.
“She said she wished I was 18,” he testified. “She said it sucked that I was 17 years old and wished that I was 18, but couldn’t help herself.”
There, in his parents’ vehicle, the student testified that he kissed Lund. That eventually led to her performing oral sex on him, he alleged, though the defense denied that any oral sex occurred.
The student said that about a month later his girlfriend found out about Lund through a series of text messages and told the student that he needed to go to the authorities and report what had happened. “She said she was going to break up with me,” the student testified. “It needed to be done. The wrong thing happened.”
The student said that he did talk to several school officials, but initially denied any sexual contact. Only when he was called on it in a subsequent interview did he make any mention of a sexual encounter.
“I was protecting myself, my scholarship that I had,” the student testified.
CHS dean Tom Gray said that he could tell the student was holding back information. “He seemed troubled, nervous,” he testified. “He said he didn’t want to tell me anymore.”
In cross examination, Sicoli poked at the student’s credibility, focusing on the number of people he initially lied to about not meeting with Lund outside of school.
Sicoli continued to question the student’s credibility in his closing statement. “Who’s to say he’s still not trying to protect himself?” Sicoli asked.
Position of authority
Both attorneys believed that the key question in the case, however, was whether or not Lund was in a position of authority when they met at Hidden Ponds Park.
“There’s an unequal power between teachers and students,” Wentzell argued. “And not just from 8 to 3 p.m.”
Wentzell said that Lund had abused the public’s trust in her as a teacher. “She’s not going to be using the high school as her pick-up bar,” he said in his closing statement.
Sicoli argued that there was no evidence to show that Lund ever had authority over the student. She was not his teacher, was not involved in any of his extra-curricular activities and did not have influence over his grades.
In the end, the jury agreed.
“They determined that the state could not prove its burden,” said Wentzell. “I respect their decision.”
Despite being acquitted of the charges, it appears Lund won’t return to CHS.
“She hasn’t really thought about where she’s going now,” said Sicoli. “Obviously, she’s not working at Chaska High School anymore.”
Chaska Herald staff writer Mollee Francisco can be reached at email@example.com.