Judge Not

Randall Zimmerman was branded a child molester. A jury finally set him free.

In a victim impact statement Mary's father submitted to the court, he describes his daughter's troubles. And he blames Zimmerman for them -- even though his time frame lines up with Mary's original story about the abuse beginning when she was twelve. "Shortly before Mary began her teen years (and the sexual abuse started), we saw her change," he writes. "School homework was hard for her to complete. She complained of many, many headaches and would sometimes leave school early. Angry outbursts and withdrawal from us were common.

"Later in high school, she told her mom that she was depressed. She complained of her brain not working well. She couldn't stay on one subject...her mind jumping all around," the letter continues. "At one point she said, 'I think I'm going crazy. There are demons in my head.' At our insistence, she got some counseling. When we saw our once happy child now needing anti-depressants just to make it through the day without nightmares, we were heart-broken." (Neither Mary nor her parents returned calls from Westword.)

After the prosecution rested, thirteen counts of sexual assault on a child were dropped, since Mary had altered her to story to say that the abuse began after she turned fifteen. And two other counts had to be dropped for lack of evidence during the preliminary hearing, leaving only ten of the original 25.

 
John Johnston
 
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was 
everyone's favorite teacher.
John Johnston
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was everyone's favorite teacher.

Only Mary's parents and a brother testified as to her character. But nearly a dozen former co-workers, students and youth group members took the stand on Zimmerman's behalf, and many more provided oral or written statements. "There were people saying they wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for Randy. And yet you can't get one person to testify on her behalf? No teachers, not even the boyfriend she had a baby with?" Vierk asks.

When Carol Zimmerman was on the stand, she described how Mary had tried to interject herself into their lives. Once, when Carol was feeding her baby, Mary reportedly snatched him away from her and began feeding him herself. A series of similarly odd actions led Carol to call Mary's parents about her behavior. (At the trial, however, Mary's parents denied ever receiving such a call.)

Hilary Hungerford, a former youth group member who was in the Peace Corps in Africa during the trial (and is still there) gave a statement to Newell's investigator that was never entered into evidence. In it, she explained that Mary "wanted more from Randy" and seemed to be "pushing the boundaries that are set up between an adult and a kid." Hungerford guessed that Mary made the accusation because "she's upset that Randy didn't return the same feelings that maybe she had for him."

Juror Anne Rice felt that Mary's testimony was completely incredible. "This trial made me change my mind on all these sex-assault cases," says the retired nurse. "Whenever I read about people making these kinds of claims, I had believed them. This made me realize there are two sides to every story."

But not everyone agreed. "I fought with the other jurors about this," Vierk says. "There are some people who still believe that if you're on trial, you must have done something. A lot of the jurors thought he was guilty; they didn't necessarily believe Mary's stories, but they thought something must have happened."

Peter Lansing was one of them. "Why would someone at the age of 24 allow the charges to continue against this guy if there wasn't an issue? It just doesn't make sense," says Lansing, president of Universal Lending Corporation. Not only did he feel that there was no motivation for Mary to lie, but he also believed that her descriptions of the various assaults were too detailed to have been contrived.

"When I have a discussion with my kids and they're lying to me, the details aren't clear. The more you get into details, the more the truth becomes known, and that's what discerns someone's guilt or innocence," Lansing says. "Her details were extraordinary. If you just manufactured these charges, you couldn't have been as clear as she was."

Other jurors, like foreman Linda Newell (no relation to Steve Newell), weren't sure what to believe. She, too, found the details Mary provided to be indicative of the truth. But as more and more discrepancies appeared, Newell began to have her doubts. "To go to the extent to take someone to trial seemed very grandiose to me if it was all false," she says. "But if she was truly on the verge of borderline personality, it could be a possibility."

The many young people who testified about the difference Zimmerman made in their lives made her wonder whether this well-regarded man was capable of taking advantage of someone in his care, but when Zimmerman himself testified, it only confused her more. "Honestly, once he took the stand, it seemed so well rehearsed that it made me doubt again."

The jurors began deliberating on Thursday, February 13, and butted heads well into Friday. Because of the President's Day weekend, they didn't reconvene until the following Tuesday. "Those three days were hell," Zimmerman says. "I'd either become a prisoner on Tuesday or walk home. I had to prepare my kids for the worst."

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