Judge Not

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

His youngest son asked him if he'd get the death penalty. "That hit me pretty hard."

That final stretch was hard on Zimmerman's supporters, as well. "Randy was Christlike to us," says Henrich. "He came and saved us, and then we had to watch him be taken down."

Vierk agonized over the tremendous power he and the eleven other jurors held. "I dreamt about it throughout the trial," he says. "Jurors don't always understand the seriousness of what they're doing. We could be sending this man to prison for life. Each count carried a sentence of four to ten years. Obviously if you do something like this, you belong in prison. But let's put the right ones there."

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.

When the jurors returned on February 18, they continued to go back and forth. Because the remaining counts were all the same -- sexual assault on a minor by a person in a position of trust -- they had difficulty determining which particular assaults Zimmerman may or may not have committed. "Some offenses were clearer than others," Lansing says. "If one of the counts had been for oral sex in a van in a cemetery, we could have determined if he was guilty of that or not. But we were left to define what count went with what offense."

Initially, seven of the jurors thought Zimmerman guilty; further into the deliberations, however, seven thought he was not guilty. So when the judge asked them if they had any questions, Lansing asked why all ten counts were the same. 'He said, 'Wow, we'll have to look into that,' but he never came back with an answer," Lansing recalls.

On the last day of deliberations, the jurors still couldn't agree, and the judge came in and told them they needed to make a decision. After that, the number of jurors leaning toward not guilty shifted to eleven. Lansing, the last to hold out, finally folded. Because of the ambiguity of the counts, none of the jurors, he says, felt they could prove Zimmerman committed them beyond a reasonable doubt. And so they voted to acquit him of all charges. "If we had known which offense went with what count, I can tell you the outcome would have been different," Lansing says.

Vierk remembers watching Carol Zimmerman as the verdict was read. She squeezed her mother-in-law's shoulder harder with the reading of each count. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.... When it was over, everyone in Zimmerman's camp had tears in their eyes and looks of great relief on their faces. Neither Mary nor her parents were present.

Afterward, Vierk felt compelled to meet Zimmerman, but first he had to go back to the jury room to collect his belongings. The court reporter walked with him. "She told me she has 26 years of experience in this and said, 'I don't normally tell people this, but I think you guys made the right decision.' I think that said a lot," Vierk says.

Schober is disappointed with the outcome but says she felt the sheriff's investigation was thorough and that her case was strong. "Nine times out of ten, it's the victim's word against the perpetrator's. You couple that with the fact that the jury has to decide that something happened beyond a reasonable doubt, and that makes these kinds of cases tough, because jurors often want more than someone's word," she explains. "Often there's no evidence in these cases. Just because someone's found not guilty doesn't mean they're innocent. I truly believe that what she said happened happened, and I'd take him to trial again in a heartbeat."

Lansing also remains convinced of Zimmerman's guilt, even though he didn't have the legal ground to convict him. And no amount of praise from Zimmerman's students could make him think otherwise. "What a guy with charisma. I get what he's good at; he really knows kids," Lansing says. "I feel he overstepped his boundaries with a young woman who didn't know boundaries, and I have to live with knowing I helped acquit him. I just hope like hell he doesn't do anything again to another child."

As soon as the trial ended, Zimmerman looked to clear his name publicly, too. He called the Fox radio morning show, and Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax gave him ample time to tell his side of the story. Channel 7 interviewed him, and other television stations announced the outcome. The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post also ran articles about it.

"In Randy's case, the system worked, but look at how long it's taken and how much it's cost," says Reed, Zimmerman's former colleague at Mrachek Middle School. "A jury can find you not guilty, but no one's there to pick up the pieces afterwards. Everyone else has moved on, and poor Randy's still out here trying to put his life back together.

"I've been in this business 27 years, and I've seen many accusations made, most of them unfounded. I've seen many lives and careers ruined over stuff like this," Reed continues. "I tell my colleagues that we're all one accusation away from losing our jobs."

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