Commentary: The Tragic Story of John O’Brien

Superintendent Winfred Roberson at the November press conference regarding John O'Brien's case
Superintendent Winfred Roberson at the November press conference regarding John O’Brien’s case

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


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 thoughts on “Commentary: The Tragic Story of John O’Brien”

  1. zaqzaq


    Why don’t you do a little investigative journalism and interview the victim, his parents, obtain a copy of the police report and attempt to provide a balanced article instead of swallowing O’Brien’s hired spin doctor?  This is nauseating to read as you attempt to put O’Brien in a noble light for saving all of the witnesses and victim from having to come to court and testify.  What more does O’Brien have to lose besides sex registration by forcing the DA to prove he is guilty.  You cannot claim that he was coerced into pleading due to some really big potential prison term that he avoided.  Instead O’Brien resigns instead of fighting the allegations and then agrees to a plea deal that results in a conviction.  These are not the actions of an honorable innocent man doing the right thing to avoid a media spectacle.  These are the actions of a guilty man that committed a crime against a child and does not want everyone to know the ugly details.  I wonder how much money his mouthpiece lawyer was paid to keep a straight face as he proclaimed his client’s innocence?

    1. Davis Progressive

      who is the kid?  does the kid want to be interviewed?  does the kids’ family?  it seems pretty obvious that they don’t as there has been not a peap from them publicly.

      obtain a copy of the police report?  that’s not a public document and it’s certainly not a public document involving a minor.

      the original charge would not have required sex offender status.

      1. zaqzaq


        The police report in the Duggar case was released but that was another state and maybe that state has different laws.  The allegations in that case were more severe.  I was surprised that it was released.

        If none of the offenses required sex registration that provides further support for my position.  What did he have to lose by requiring the school district to prove the conduct in order to fire him and to require the DA prove the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.   The reasoning given by O’Brien’s hired mouthpiece is just plain lame.


        By the way what was the result in the pimp case?  You covered the story but not the result.


        1. David Greenwald Post author

          We checked again, no verdict is recorded in the computer – it’s still listed as pending. I have not had time to seek out the attorneys to see what is going on.

    2. Tia Will


      Wow ! Your willingness to make a calll of factual guilt based on  the minimal information available certainly leaves me hoping that if I m ever falsely accused, you are not on the jury.

      1. zaqzaq


        If you were falsely accused of a crime I would 100% support you making the DA prove your guilt in front of a jury.  If you were falsely accused I would expect you to fight to retain your job and career.  This guy did neither with nothing to lose that he did not already lose by accepting the plea bargain.  Just because his attorney claims he was innocent you get all wound up with the possibility that he is innocent when his actions are not that of an innocent man.  As I pointed out earlier he had nothing else to lose other than the jury concluding he was guilty and the public learning all of the facts of the incident.  To now claim innocence after all of this is just plain lame.

  2. PhilColeman

    “Do we have reason to question whether Mr. O’Brien actually committed this offense?”

    I don’t know if he’s factually guilty of anything criminal. O’Brien plead to a criminal charge, so he is legally guilty. In enumerating the possible reasons to suspect factual innocence, I’ll add one more–the one more than other that makes me believe O’Brien is innocent.

    O’Brien worked in an environment with constant mass exposure to young boys. Pedophilia and all its derivatives, is a human condition that evolves early in adulthood or adolescence and persists and even grows in the years that follow.

    It seems very incongruous to me that with 15 years close exposure to young boys there not a single prior instance of improper sexual behavior by O’Brien. So, please consider adding this observation to the list of “reasons to question.”

  3. Tia Will


    i think you have made a very good point. Multiple times we have seen examples in which one individual has the courage to make a charge of sexual misbehavior and this serves as an enabling event which prompts other victims to come forward.

    There has so far been no suggestion of that in this case. While I agree that this proves nothing, I do think that it raises a reason to question.


  4. skeptical

    The school district, its superintendent, and head of personnel have a very poor record in dealing with personnel issues.  Why did the district act so strictly and so publicly on this matter?  What’s the real story, and why has the district neglected to take action on much more serious and better supported allegations?    

  5. sisterhood

    Thank you for this thought provoking commentary.

    It’s taken me a few days to ponder.  Mr. O.B. instructed and helped both my son and daughter. I wanted to discuss his situation with them before I commented here. I’m embarrassed to admit that I asked both of them, point blank, “Did he ever do anything the least bit inappropriate around you? Did you ever, even once, get a creepy vibe from him?” They were both emphatic. They both said, “No! Never! Not even once!” My son told me he had hundreds of encounters with Mr. O.B. and he never once acted inappropriately. My daughter, who was caught on one occasion copying from another student’s homework paper, stated he never once acted creepy or inappropriately towards her.

    I’ve had many interactions with John O’Brien. We discussed the consequences of my daughter’s behavior. She had to re-submit another assignment at a lower grade. Her dad and I found the resolution totally reasonable. I believe my daughter learned a valuable lesson from Mr. O.B. At the time, she thought he was too strict. Now she realizes he was doing his job. Justice was served.

    I have many positive memories of John O’Brien. I remember he allowed students to sit in his classroom at lunchtime. They all brought CD’s and listened to music. It was mostly 7th graders who were a bit uncomfortable in the lunch yard. It probably kept them on campus at lunchtime. It definitely provided them with a safe haven to interact. I also remember attending a matinee of The Lord of the Rings in Davis. We discovered Mr. O.B and another teacher sitting in the row behind us. The kids were happy to see their teachers there. We briefly discussed the movie afterwards. I was so pleased to see their interaction with both teachers. It reminded me that teachers rarely take a day off. Even on the weekend, or in the evening, they’re always in the community, often in the public eye.

    I believe Mr. O.B. is innocent. I’m very sad he has to endure this life changing event. (Re: plea bargains, I know someone else who plea bargained to a serious offense because he did not want to put his family and friends through a jury trial. My other friend did not want to risk spending seven years in a state prison, away from his children, for a crime he did not commit.)

    Innocent people definitely enter into plea bargains.

    I understand why he plea bargained. I do not believe justice was served.

    Mr. O.B., in case you are reading this, thank you very much for being a fine teacher and a fine example for my family. We know you’ll continue to live a dignified life. Please remember all the families in Davis you helped. Please appreciate all your gifts and talents. Don’t allow one event to define you. You are a good person.


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