Crime

The teacher was friendly with students, but her kindness led to alleged sex

Former Tenaya Middle School teacher Justine Nelson, 33, seen in a 2017 photo. Nelson is on trial for two felony charges involving sexual contact with a student.
Former Tenaya Middle School teacher Justine Nelson, 33, seen in a 2017 photo. Nelson is on trial for two felony charges involving sexual contact with a student. plopez@fresnobee.com

A former Fresno middle school teacher, who was described as being too friendly with students, will stand trial on three felony charges in connection with an alleged affair with a 14-year-old student last year, a judge ruled Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court.

Judge Gary Hoff made his decision after a Fresno police detective testified that Justine Karen Nelson admitted to giving oral sex to a 14-year-old male student two or three times inside her classroom at Tenaya Middle School after school. Nelson also admitted to sending the boy nude photographs of herself, Detective Sylvia Martinez told the judge.

But defense attorney Roger Nuttall, who is defending Nelson, said the alleged victim used “psychological and emotional manipulation” to force Nelson into the sex acts. “He threatened to ruin her life,” Nuttall said.

He threatened to ruin her life.

Fresno defense attorney Roger Nuttall

Hoff ordered Nelson, 31, to stand trial on one felony count of lewd or lascivious acts with a minor and two felony counts of oral copulation. Prosecutor Matt Johnson contends the unlawful sex acts took place from March to May last year when the boy was a student at Tenaya Middle School. Johnson also contends that the boy was 13 years old when sex acts began.

But Hoff said there is conflicting testimony as to whether the boy was 13 or 14 years of age when the sex acts began.

If convicted, Nelson could be sentenced to prison and be required to register as a sex offender. Nuttall, however, said Nelson shouldn’t have to register and is a candidate for probation since she has no prior criminal history.

Nelson, who was arrested Sept. 15, 2016, is free on $130,000 bail. She attended Tuesday’s hearing with her husband.

Police said Nelson was a fill-in teacher who worked in various Tenaya classrooms when the regular teacher was unavailable. The alleged victim, who was not identified in court, was not one of Nelson’s students, but attended the school. When police contacted him in September, he was a freshman attending San Joaquin Memorial.

Police were tipped off to Nelson after nude photos of her were posted on the victim’s social media site.

Fresno police Detective Sylvia Martinez testified that Justine Nelson admitted to giving oral sex to the 14-year-old boy two or three times in her classroom.

Nuttall said Tuesday after Hoff’s ruling that Nelson was a good teacher, but sometimes too friendly with students. She would buy students things and offer to give them a ride home from school, he said.

“She wanted to be their buddy,” Nuttall said. “But when they do that, it’s dangerous, because some of them will take advantage of you.”

The alleged victim, he said, came from an unhappy home and Nelson wanted to help him. But one day he demanded a kiss, Nuttall said. If she didn’t kiss him, the boy told Nelson he would call authorities and they would take away her baby, Nuttall said.

The kiss then led to him entering her classroom after school and demanding oral sex and nude photographs of her, Nuttall said.

Martinez verified much of Nuttall’s account on the witness stand. Martinez testified she interviewed Nelson for nearly two hours at Tenaya Middle School in September. The detective said Nelson admitted to giving the alleged victim oral sex after Nelson said he demanded it. Nelson also admitted to sending nude photographs of herself to the alleged victim after Nelson said he demanded them, Martinez said.

The detective said Nelson was crying during the interview, apologized for her conduct and said it was a lapse of judgment. But on the way to the police station, Martinez said, Nelson started joking about what she had done. According to Martinez, Nelson said: “Oops, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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