By Aimee Green | The Oregonian | March 1, 2017
A judge on Wednesday acquitted a 31-year-old Portland Public Schools employee charged with sexually abusing a 7-year-old developmentally disabled student in a school bathroom.
Multnomah County Circuit Judge David Rees found Brett Christy-Hamilton not guilty of two counts of first-degree sexual abuse.
The case was "a textbook example of how an innocent person can be charged with a heinous crime he did not commit," said Christy-Hamilton's defense attorney, Stephen Houze. Houze described the case as an "incredible ordeal" for his client and "an nightmare for his entire family."
Christy-Hamilton had been accused in November 2015 of molesting the girl -- under the guise of helping her wipe while on the toilet -- at her Southeast Portland school. He was immediately placed on administrative leave.
The Oregonian/OregonLive generally doesn't identify alleged victims in sex abuse cases, so isn't naming the girl, her parents or her school.
Christy-Hamilton was assigned to assist the girl as her paraeducator throughout the school day because of her disabilities.
Houze criticized the school district for forcing Christy-Hamilton to accompany the girl to the bathroom without providing him a written plan or clear direction on whether she needed help pulling down her pants or wiping. Christy-Hamilton and two other paraeducators called a meeting in 2013 with district administrators to strongly object to the directive that they help students -- including children of the opposite sex -- with the toilet, Houze said. But they were told they must do it or else face firing, according to a witness called by the defense.
"They were told by the union president and (a district administrator) under no circumstances could they refuse to do this," Houze said. "This was their job description."
On the second day that Christy-Hamilton accompanied the girl to the school bathroom, she went home that afternoon and told her parents that Christy-Hamilton had abused her, according to their testimony.
The girl has severe speech impairments, so much so that the detective investigating the case, the prosecutor and the judge all said or acknowledged that they had serious trouble understanding her. The case hinged largely on the interpretations of her speech by her mother, who said she was able to understand her daughter and vocalized her daughter's answers to child-abuse investigators.
The investigators also then conducted a separate interview of the girl without her mother present, but Christy-Hamilton's defense contended the girl was asked leading questions.
Houze contended that it was impossible that the girl could have offered such a detailed account of what happened: That on two consecutive days Christy-Hamilton stepped into a bathroom stall with her, pulled down her pants and rubbed her genital area. The girl also reportedly said Christy-Hamilton moved his fingers around while not holding toilet paper.
"It is absurd in the extreme to believe that this child -- who we know has such severe communication disorder -- would be even capable of having the conversation that her mother says quote and unquote this is what she said to me," Houze said during closing arguments.
In questioning the lawyers during closing arguments Tuesday, the judge said he agreed with the defense that the girl couldn't have offered as much detail as claimed by a doctor who interviewed her.
"We know from hearing from (the girl in court) that there's no way the conversation proceeded like that," Rees said. "...Verbatim, it couldn't possibly have gone like that."
But prosecutor Chuck Mickley said that despite the girl's speech impairments, she was capable of clearly articulating answers to yes and no questions -- and despite her speech difficulties, could be understood by her mother when she spoke other words.
"(She) has the ability to say yes and no," Mickley said. "You can believe those statements. You should believe those statements."
Mickley pointed to testimony of others, including a female paraeducator who accompanied the girl to the school restroom when she was a kindergartner. That paraeducator said the girl didn't need help with wiping after using the toilet -- except one time during her kindergarten year. Christy-Hamilton became responsible for bringing the girl to the bathroom when the girl was in first grade.
Christy-Hamilton's defense argued that the girl's mother was motivated to secure a conviction because she hoped to file a lawsuit against the school district. The defense contended that the girl's parents are financially strapped and the mother filed a tort claim notice last year, reserving her right to sue the school district for the alleged abuse and for allegedly failing to protect her daughter from Christy-Hamilton.
But the prosecutor said there's no evidence the girl's mother was motivated by money, the mother has no "ax to grind" with Christy-Hamilton and the mother has shown herself to be a credible witness. Mickley said like any parent, the girl's mother wished her daughter hadn't fallen victim to sexual abuse.
"It's not as though this is what Mom wants to hear," Mickley said. "... It's the last thing that a parent wants to believe, that somebody you love has been sexually abused."
Christy-Hamilton faced a prison sentence ranging from 6 1/4 to 12 1/2 years if convicted.
Each day of the six-day trial was attended by the girl's parents and other members of her family. As the judge announced his verdict, the parents sat in the courtroom gallery holding hands, then shortly after that quietly left the courtroom.
Christy-Hamilton's wife, parents and other supporters also sat through the trial. Christy-Hamilton's father, Peter Hamilton, was Lincoln High School's principal before he retired. His mother is a retired teacher.
After the verdict, Christy-Hamilton walked out of the courtroom and into the arms of his wife. Christy-Hamilton declined to comment to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Houze said Christy-Hamilton has been on administrative leave -- most of it unpaid -- for more than 15 months, since the day after the girl made the accusation. Houze said that even though his client has been acquitted, it's unclear if he'll get his job back with Portland Public Schools.
Attorney Jake Houze, who is Stephen Houze's son, also represented Christy-Hamilton.