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Appeals court reverses molestation conviction of ex-chief of Army and Navy Academy

Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, Calif. (Google Maps/Released)

Saying the trial judge erred in dismissing a juror during deliberations, a state appellate court on Friday reversed the convictions of a former headmaster of a Carlsbad military boarding school found guilty in 2017 of molesting a cadet years earlier.

The three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal unanimously found that the dismissal of the juror in the second trial of Jeffrey Barton was “not manifestly supported by evidence.”

During deliberations, the jury complained to Superior Court Judge Harry Elias that one of the jurors was refusing to participate. Elias and the attorneys on both sides of the case questioned each juror. After hearing from them, Elias then dismissed the juror at the center of the conflict and replaced her an alternate.

It’s the latest complication in the case against Barton, now 62. He has repeatedly denied the allegations of sexual abuse that prosecutors said began when the cadet was 14 and a new student at the seaside academy in 1999, where Barton lived and taught.

Barton was convicted of six molestation counts at his second trial — the first ended with a deadlocked jury — and sentenced to 48 years in prison. Barton has been in custody since his 2013 arrest, and as of Friday was an inmate at Avenal State Prison in Kings County.

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It’s unknown whether prosecutors will opt to try him a third time. District attorney spokesman Steve Walker said in an email that “no decisions have been made at this time in light of the ruling and we have no comment.”

In the appellate ruling, the court noted that what the jurors said when Elias questioned them “demonstrates only that Juror No. 12 disagreed with the other jurors, who found her to be unfriendly and unable to offer persuasive explanations for her opinion, not that she was unable or unwilling to deliberate.”

“We agree,” the panel wrote.

During deliberations, jurors told Elias that Juror No. 12 was not communicating nor had been willing to deliberate from the start, and that she would not explain why she had reached her conclusions about the case. One said it was like talking to a chair.

Juror No. 12 told the judge that she felt bullied by the other 11 jurors because she had come to a different conclusion in the case. She said the others wanted her replaced with an alternate juror who would agree with them.

After a new juror joined the panel, Barton’s attorney asked for a mistrial, but Elias refused.

That was on a Friday. Over the following weekend days, in a series of telephone calls from the Vista jail, Barton maintained his innocence to the Union-Tribune but said he was certain the jury would find him guilty because No. 12 — the lone holdout — had been replaced.

The next time the jury convened, the newly constituted panel reached the guilty verdicts within hours.

The case hinged on the credibility of the accuser, who did not disclose the alleged abuse until 2013. The prosecution pointed to corroborating evidence, including contemporaneous suspicions from adults at the school and other accusers dating back decades.

During the investigation, six more accusers came forward, their allegations covering three boarding schools in three states and dating to the mid-1980s.

At his second trial, Barton faced only those charges tied to the initial accuser. The defense painted him as a liar and noted that he had sued the school. The accuser ultimately settled for $1.75 million.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune