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Immoral aggressor — or vulnerable victim? Teacher’s fate in sex case now rests with jury

Tenaya Middle School teacher arrested on sex charges

Justine Karen Nelson allegedly had sex with 14-year-old boy student, police say.
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Justine Karen Nelson allegedly had sex with 14-year-old boy student, police say.

Did a former Tenaya Middle School teacher willfully have a sexual relationship with an 8th grade student that included sending him semi-nude photos of herself?

Or, was she so vulnerable that the student manipulated her to jeopardize her career, be unfaithful to her husband and commit a crime?

That’s what a jury of eight women and six men must decide in the case of Justine Karen Nelson, who is charged with felony lewd or lascivious acts with a minor and oral copulation.

Nelson, 33, faces up to eight years and eight months in prison including a felony strike, if found guilty. But that’s only if the jury believes the student was age 13 when the first incident happened.

If the jury believes he was 14-years-old, her punishment could be less — three years and no strike.

Justine Nelson
Fresno teacher Justine Karen Nelson, 30, is charged with sex crimes involving a 14-year-old student at Tenaya Middle School. Fresno Police Department

Throughout the trial in Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan’s courtroom, defense attorney Roger Nuttall portrayed Nelson as a friendly, well-liked teacher who was coerced by a manipulative teenager who seemed intent on wanting one thing from the married teacher: sex.

In his closing arguments Monday, Nuttall said the teenager pressured Nelson into giving him what he wanted by threatening to tell school officials that they were having a sexual relationship.

The defendant testified last week that she felt powerless and had no option but to give him oral sex in her classroom. She testified that it only happened once. The student said it happened at least three times, possibly more.

“Justine was vulnerable, she felt comfortable in the attention of this young man,” Nuttall said. “We all make mistakes, we are all susceptible.”

Nuttall said the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office failed to prove Nelson had “wrongful intent,” which would be a key factor if she were found guilty.

He also tried to convince the jury the student was not telling the truth — and that his motive for exaggerating his version of events might be because his family has filed a civil lawsuit against the district seeking damages.

Under cross examination by Nuttall, the student had trouble remembering exact dates, times and other important details.

“(The student) is a fraud and a liar,” Nuttall said.

But Deputy District Attorney Liz Owen said that if anyone has a problem telling the truth it’s Nelson. She reminded the jury that during questioning by police Nelson denied having a relationship with the student or giving him oral sex in her classroom. She later admitted to police that she lied to try and protect herself and even joked to detectives about “hooking up with a 14-year-old.”

Owen showed the jury earlier in the trial an extensive cache of private messages between Nelson and the student that included the semi-nude messages, sexual conversations and warnings from Nelson not to reveal their relationship.

Owen acknowledged that the student was engaging in very explicit language in his private messages to Nelson. It was not something he was proud of, but he was also 13 and 14 at the time, she said.

“She is the adult,” Owen said. “She is not the victim, she’s the teacher who is there to protect and guide students.”

Owen also dismissed the notion that Nelson was in a bad place emotionally in 2016 when the incident happened. She may have been having trouble with her marriage and adjusting to being a working mom, but that should not be an excuse.

“That’s life,” Owen said. “That doesn’t mean you go and flirt with a 13-year-old and orally copulate him.”

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