The saga of former high school teacher John O’Brien ended last week with the announcement by his attorney that he had accepted a plea agreement that allowed him to serve a 31-day house arrest followed by three years of misdemeanor probation and no registration requirement for sexual offender status.
From the start this was a case that was charged as a misdemeanor despite the attention attached to it, including an advisement from the school district and a full blown press conference. Following an investigation, he was immediately put on leave, subsequently arrested and shortly thereafter he resigned the teaching position which he loved – and many in the community had love and respect for him.
Plea agreements are by their nature unsatisfactory. For the victims of real crimes, it seems that the individuals get off with a small slap on the wrist. For those who maintain their innocence, as John O’Brien has throughout this saga, there is no justice, no exoneration – only questions and accusations.
Was he guilty? We don’t know. There are many who argue that a plea agreement is an admission of guilt. It certainly is an admission within the legal system of accepting the consequences for guilt.
An Alford Plea is a guilty plea of a defendant who proclaims his innocence but who admits the prosecution has enough evidence to prove that he is guilty in a court of law. This is different from a typical plea where the defendant usually acknowledges guilt.
Through his attorney Ken Moyal, Mr. O’Brien tells us, he has his reasons for accepting the plea. Mr. Moyal told the Vanguard, “One of his primary concerns was the toll that it would take on the community – especially his students. There were almost 20 different students and former students that were interviewed by Davis PD, and that would likely become witnesses at a possible trial.”
“Mr. O’Brien did not want their last image of him as them testifying in court,” Mr. Moyal explained.
Contrary to the belief of many, innocent people plead guilty quite frequently to crimes they do not commit.
In most states, about 95 percent of all felony cases go to plea bargain rather than to trial (note: this case was never charged as a felony). As Jed Rakoff wrote in the New York Review of Books for November 20, 2014, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” the advantages of the prosecution – and the pressure to take a more lenient sentence, “appears to have led a significant number of defendants to plead guilty to crimes they never actually committed.”
In a universe of known wrongfully convicted individuals, the Innocence Project has found that about 10 percent actually pleaded guilty to those crimes, including, most notoriously, football player Brian Banks.
Mr. Rakoff writes, “Presumably they did so because, even though they were innocent, they faced the likelihood of being convicted of capital offenses and sought to avoid the death penalty, even at the price of life imprisonment. But other publicized cases, arising with disturbing frequency, suggest that this self-protective psychology operates in noncapital cases as well, and recent studies suggest that this is a widespread problem.”
While Mr. O’Brien’s case was more unusual in that he had private counsel and was facing a relatively small offense, Mr. O’Brien preferred to accept the misdemeanor penalty rather than contest the charges.
Do we have reason to question whether Mr. O’Brien actually committed this offense?
The story we were told last fall and again last week by Mr. Moyal was consistent. Mr. O’Brien had taken this troubled young man under his wings. He became a trusted confidante of both the boy and his family. But, ultimately, Mr. O’Brien could not help the boy and ended up recommended he go to rehab for his substance abuse.
It was upon return from rehab, Mr. Moyal told the Vanguard, that the boy, as a retaliatory measure, claimed that Mr. O’Brien touched him over his clothing on his genitals.
While we have no way of knowing whether this is true or not, we are troubled by the idea that a single accusation could result in criminal charges, termination of job and eventually a conviction through a plea.
The problem that we face is that we need to protect kids from child predators. We see this again and again in society where children become victims of teachers and others in position of authority, who abuse that authority. Mr. O’Brien made some clear mistakes – he put himself in a position where he could be credibly accused of a crime. He was at the alleged victim’s house, alone.
Given the need to protect kids, we tend to err on the side of guilty unless proven innocent. An accusation has to be taken seriously. If it went to court, it would have been a media spectacle and it would have been difficult for him and all involved.
On the other hand, while we need to take these accusations seriously, it is troubling that the burden of proof has been effectively reversed. The defense claims that the police could not find a single witness to corroborate the story or who had a similar experience. Given the 15 years that Mr. O’Brien worked in the district, this information, if it proved to be true, would be strong evidence to suggest that maybe the boy was indeed making it up.
But we can never prove it and so, in the interest of protecting our kids, Mr. O’Brien may well never be able to teach again.
This is a case where the legal sanctions are actually the tip of the iceberg. This is a man who has lost far more than legal sanctions could ever take away.
He lost his job, his community, the life he loved and, while in the end he made the decision to resign and plead guilty, that should not take away from the tragedy of this case.
I would hate to say that there is a lesson in all of this that teachers should not try to help their students beyond the classroom. That would be a horrible lesson to have to learn in all of this, but it might be the one that we must take away from this case.
—David M. Greenwald reporting