Split verdict for Norris

JEFFREY NORRIS

BY STACI WILSON and PAT FARNELLI

A former Montrose Area school teacher was found not guilty on all charges related to allegedly having an affair with a ninth grade student back in 2007, but was found guilty on three counts of intercepting communications without another’s knowledge.

Jeffrey Norris smiled and was later embraced by his mother, sister and a family friend following the verdict Thursday in Susquehanna County Court.

His attorney, Paul Ackourey, said he believed the jurors “were able to discern who was telling the truth.”

The jurors went into deliberation around 3:45 p.m. and emerged four hours later with the verdict.

The final day of the four-day trial started with Norris taking the stand in his own defense and essentially refuting testimony given Tuesday by his friend, Curtis Kiehl, as well as the alleged victim.

Both Kiehl and the victim had testified that they had ingested cocaine with Norris and another teen during an all-night softball tournament in South Montrose in June 2007. The victim alleged she also had sex with Norris at the tournament.

Prosecutor John Flannery asked Norris if he thought Kiehl was lying part of a “conspiracy” to get him.

“He is lying,” Norris said. “I think he was real scared.”

Kiehl, a Dean of Students at PATH (formerly Bethesda) in Williamsport, offered his testimony on Tuesday afternoon.

On the stand Wednesday, the victim’s teen friend said that, although she drove the victim to the tournament, she never saw the girl with Norris.

She also said she and the girl never did drugs with Norris and Kiehl.

Norris said he saw the two girls at the tournament but that he had no contact with her there that night.

Norris said the girl had never been at his home and denied ever having sex with her.

His accuser had earlier testified that she went to his house on two occasions and that they engaged in intercourse.

Also facing three counts of wiretapping for secretly taping conversation with school administrators, Norris explained to the jury his reasons for making the recordings.

Norris said that the school administrators had asked to meet with him on those three occasions regarding issues he believed could affect his employment in a negative way.

According to testimony, per the teachers’ union contract, written notice needed to be given for a meeting that could impact employment.

Norris said he was not given notice of the meetings and was not provided with the opportunity to call in a union representative to witness the meetings.

“I wanted to protect myself,” he said.

Norris was officially terminated by the Montrose Area School District Oct. 12, 2009 for failing to meet certification requirements. He had been suspended from his teaching position in February 2009, after the allegations against him were made.

The trial recessed for lunch and resumed Thursday at about 1:30 p.m., with closing arguments from defense attorney Paul Ackourey and deputy prosecutor John Flannery of the state attorney general’s office, wrapping up with Presiding Judge Raymond Hamill’s instructions to the jury.

Ackourey complimented the jury members on their attention to the proceedings and said that the defendant does not have to prove his innocence, and that the burden of proof rests squarely on the shoulders of the prosecutor.

“The testimony paints a picture of an obsessed young woman,” Ackourey said.

First, her MySpace account was investigated by a school official, who searched for photos of her and Norris together. “They were not there,” he said.

“In 2007 (the alleged victim) was questioned, and she denied a sexual relationship existed. Mr. Norris was asked….and he denied it had happened. He was told to stay away from the victim, and he did,” Ackourey said.

He added that the victim became angry when his client ignored her, and made more than 120 calls to Norris using a cell phone registered to her mother.  ”There is no evidence that (Norris) ever called her back.”

He said that the victim was unhappy at Montrose High School because of rumors, “rumors that she had started, and when she was transferred to the alternative program Bethesda, she was not happy there, either.”

Ackourey said that Norris recorded conversations in meetings with Montrose High School administrators because he was worried about his job, and was concerned that he did not get a written notice or have a union representative present at them.

Flannery then addressed the jurors: “You heard the defendant on the stand: it is all a conspiracy.”

He said that Norris wants the jury to believe that two teachers two troopers, a former vice principal, principal and superintendent all conspired against him, “and masterminding it all is the victim, who was 14 years old. Who’s on trial?”

He referred to Norris as “this Bucknell graduate,” and asked if anything that Norris has to say makes sense. “You would have to believe that everyone got together and hatched this plot against him.”

He also commented on the way that the Montrose Area School District administrators handled the allegations.

“Someone could have picked up the phone and called Childline, Children and Youth, the State Police…but they chose to do it the way they did,” Flannery said.

He summed up the case by saying, “She thought he was her boyfriend, and was breaking up with her, and had been seduced by him on top of that. She had had sexual relations with him at his house before the investigation happened.”

The Judge then instructed the jurors, saying that the speeches of counsel are not evidence and that they should not consider them as such.

“You should be guided by each lawyer’s arguments only to the extent that they are based upon evidence. You should not decide based upon which side presents the most evidence, or has the most witnesses.”

The judge instructed the jurors how to consider and weigh the evidence presented. He said that jurors could each decide to believe all, part, or none of each witness’ testimony.

He then went through the elements of each offense: statutory sexual assault, indecent contact, corruption of a minor by either sexual contact or providing marijuana or cocaine; intercepting communications without the person’s knowledge; intimidation of victim, retaliation against victim; stalking;  three counts of sexual assault, in the living room, kitchen, and on the ball field.

When they returned, the lone word ‘guilty’ was only used for three counts of intercepting communications without the person’s knowledge.

The wiretapping charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine for each count.

Following the verdict, Flannery asked that Norris’ bail be revoked.

Judge Hamill denied the request.

Ackourey said he would likely appeal the wiretapping conviction.

No sentencing date has been set.

Following is coverage of testimony that was given on the stand by witnesses on Tuesday and Wednesday of the trial. See the Oct. 3rd edition of The Susquehanna County Independent for coverage of opening arguments and witness testimony.

Day 2 testimony

Testimony resumed Tuesday morning with the cross-examination of the victim by defense attorney, Paul Ackourey.

The victim, now age 20, re-took the stand Tuesday morning.

Ackourey questioned her about emails sent to his office that were tagged with her first name and her mother’s maiden name.

The victim denied sending those emails.

She, however, did admit to developing a crush on Norris while he was her freshman English teacher. And said she had told friends that she found Norris “attractive.”

Ackourey also questioned the woman regarding statements she made to the police and in prior court testimony regarding the lay-out of Norris’ home – where two of the sexual encounters were alleged to have happened.

He also asked the victim about Norris’ use of a condom.

On the stand Tuesday, the victim said he used a condom when they engaged in sex in the bushes during a softball tournament in South Montrose.

Ackourey said that according to testimony given at the July 16, 2009 preliminary hearing, the victim said Norris had used a condom during the second sexual encounter at his residence.

“It’s a little hard to know whether he used a condom or not, it was years ago” she said. “All I know is your client did what he did to me.”

She admitted to lying to school officials when she was questioned about the nature of her relationship with Norris.

The first person in authority she told, she said, was former juvenile probation officer, Sami Bourizk. “He asked me why I was so angry and why I stopped going to school. Everyday people kept saying, ‘You’re sleeping with Mr. Norris,’” she said.

Prosecutor John Flannery entered photographs of Norris’ home into evidence. And the victim identified and described the rooms to the jury.

Testimony from the accuser wrapped up mid-morning Tuesday.

The prosecution called the victim’s mother to the stand. She described her daughter as a normal teen girl.

But, she said her daughter began skipping school toward the end of her freshman year which she now attributes to the alleged improprieties with Norris. “She didn’t want to be there – didn’t want to go to school. That wasn’t like her,” the mother told the court. “I didn’t put 1+1 together. I never guessed it was something like this.”

“It all made sense,” she said about the day in 2008 she found out about the alleged abuse. “Now I understand why she was acting the way she was.”

Two classmates of the victim also testified.

The first said she had confronted Norris in the hallway of the school when there were rumors about a relationship with the victim.

“I asked if he was doing anything with (the student),” she said.

The witness said just said, “Get away from me,” when confronted by her.

Another teen friend of the accuser also took the stand as a witness to the August 2009 incident that prompted a witness intimidation count to be lodged against Norris.

She said Norris had pulled out of his father’s street with his car and drove past the two girls, both about 16 years of age at the time, several times.

On the last pass by, she said Norris yelled out of the car window, “Justice will be served.” She said her friend was scared and hiding behind a tree.

And the she, herself, yelled back at Norris.

Tuesday afternoon

Testimony resumed shortly after 1 p.m. with two Montrose Area High School teachers, Charlene Kempa and Charlotte Sherwood, who co-taught a course which the victim had previously attended.

Kempa testified that she was in her classroom when the victim was heard exchanging words with the defendant outside her door.

Kempa said that she pulled the victim into her classroom.

“She was hysterical, up against the door, then she slid down the wall and fell to the floor, screaming and crying about a relationship between her and Mr. Norris, a sexual relationship,” Kempa said.

Sherwood, Kempa’s sister, was in the room at the time, preparing for the PASS course they taught cooperatively.

PASS is an acronym for “Paths to Achieve Success in School and Society,” Kempa said.

“There was a falling out, a breaking up with her, or something along those lines,” Kempa said.

The victim said that Norris was refusing to speak to her at school, and she was extremely upset, according to Kempa.

Sherwood concurred with her sister about the subject of the victim’s weeping.

Kempa decided to go to the high school principal, James Tallarico, during her free period.

Her sister also went to the principal’s office after first telling then assistant principal Russell Canaveri.

Tallarico told Sherwood, “Shut your mouth, and tell your sister to do the same,” she testified.

Not satisfied that Tallarico was going to investigate, Kempa went to Superintendent Michael Ognosky later the same day, she said.

She prepared a written statement, which said that the victim came to her room and told her Mr. Norris was breaking up with her.

Kempa stated that she had never seen anything inappropriate happening between Norris and the victim.

But Kempa also said that later, she was told by someone that the victim was a liar.

“Who told you?” asked John Flannery, deputy prosecutor of the state attorney general’s office.

“Mr. Tallarico,” she answered.

Defense attorney Paul Ackourey asked why, if the teachers reported this to the administration in 2007, it was not investigated by the state police until June 2009.

Both of the teachers kept meticulous journals, in which they recorded their thoughts on the situation as well as other events in their teaching career. Both of the journals have gone missing, they testified.

Flannery asked if the victim said anything beyond her allegations that she was in an intimate relationship with the teacher.

Sherwood said that the victim told them that she and the defendant were doing drugs together. “I’m not sure, I think I remember drinking (alcohol), pot…I think I remember cocaine,” said Sherwood.

She testified that Tallarico told her that the victim was “a loudmouth and a trouble maker,” and that he just wanted to get her out of there.

“And he did get her out of there?” asked the prosecutor.

“Yes. She was transferred to Bethesda,” Sherwood said.

The victim was sent to Bethesda in March of 2008, according to testimony.

The Dean of Students at Bethesda, Curtis Keihl, took the stand next, and said he had known the defendant for more than 20 years, since first grade.

“The defendant is my best friend,” Keihl testified.

He described an all-weekend softball event that he attended in South Montrose. “You didn’t just go to the game, you went to party?” asked the prosecutor.

Keihl, who acknowledged on the witness stand that he had been granted immunity from prosecution, testified that he drank and used drugs with the defendant. He said that at the ballfield, he participated in a beer pong drinking game with the defendant, and that eventually, cars full of high school students arrived, and the two friends continued to drink with the high school students.

Keihl said that he had ordered some cocaine, and left the group to go purchase cocaine. When he completed the purchase, he returned to Norris’s blue 4-door car, where the two of them snorted lines of cocaine. After using the drug, they were joined inside the car by two high school girls: the victim, and another girl approximately the same age, whom he named.

He and the defendant used cocaine with the two girls.

Keihl gave a four page statement to the police, which was read or referred to multiple times during the testimony.

The rest of the afternoon testimony was focused on audio tapes that Norris had made of various conversations allegedly without other parties knowing.

State Trooper Mark Solarski said he found the tapes in a search of Norris’ home.

Basketball coach Ronald Collins, former assistant principal Russell Canevari, principal Jim Tallerico and superintendent Ognosky each also took the stand.

When Tallerico was on the stand, he acknowledged voices on a tape from 2007 after he removed Norris as a coach, but he was still employed as a teacher. It went something like: “I have no facts. I’m merely advising you not to be alone with students”

When Ognosky took the stand, attorney Ackourey asked why when Norris was being disciplined he was not allowed a union representative by his side.

Ognosky said that whenever he has to ask someone to step down or resign, “I always do things like that in a private, confidential manner.

State trooper John Oliver also took the stand following the administrators and was quizzed about when the state police got involved in looking into the case.

Oliver said, I made the mistake of walking into (DA) Jason Legg’s office at the wrong time.”

Following Oliver’s testimony, Judge Hamill told the jurors they had now heard all of the testimony they were going to from the Commonwealth’s side,

“It is crucial, ladies and gentlemen that you not talk to anyone about this case.

Day 3 testimony

The defense opened its case in the Jeffrey Norris trial on Wednesday morning with attorney Paul Ackourey calling school administrators back to the stand.

Superintendent Michael Ognosky, Principal James Tallarico and former Asst. Principal Russell Canevari detailed the in-house investigation done by the school after teachers and administrators became aware of rumors circulating that Norris and the victim were engaged in an inappropriate relationship.

After interviews were conducted with several students, the victim and Norris, Ognosky said school officials did not find any evidence of a sexual relationship between Norris and the teen.

The allegations were never reported or “Childlined,” each of the officials said on the stand.

In separate interviews by the superintendent, Norris and the victim both denied the allegations.

Physics teacher William Host and French teacher Polly Pritchard also took the stand.

Host had seen the victim frequently visit Norris in his classroom during a free period and noted concern as to how those visits could be misinterpreted.

Pritchard said the victim was one of her students that year.

She said the victim referred to Norris, her English teacher, as “hot.”

Several of the accuser’s high school classmates each testified that she had told them differing stories about her relationship with Norris – one day saying the two were involved sexually and the next day denying the relationship.

A friend of the victim’s family, said she had given the girl a ride to an all-night softball tournament – where the victim maintains she had sex with Norris in the bushes behind the concession stand.

She said that she did not see Norris and the girl together at the tournament and denied that she was present in a car with the victim, Norris and his friend, Curtis Kiehl, where drugs and alcohol were allegedly consumed.

She also said the victim often changed her story about the nature of her relationship with the defendant.