Jurors found former Tenaya Middle School teacher Justine Karen Nelson guilty on a charge of orally copulating an eighth-grade student in her classroom.
But Nelson was found not guilty of the more serious charge of felony lewd or lascivious acts with a minor. Had she been convicted of that charge, she faced a mandatory prison term of up to eight years. Now, she could be sentenced to up to three years and, perhaps more significantly, she is eligible for probation.
Nelson broke out into tears as the not guilty verdict was read in court Tuesday afternoon. Afterward, she expressed relief.
“I am just thankful it’s over,” Nelson said. “I can now move on with my life and focus on my family.”
Nelson, who is married, is pregnant with her second child.
Her attorney Roger Nuttall said the jury did the right thing by not finding enough evidence to convict her on the lewd and lascivious charge, which hinged on whether the victim was 13 years old at the time or 14. Nuttall successfully cast enough doubt in the jury’s minds as to how old the student was when the first act of oral copulation happened.
Nelson was also accused of sending semi-nude photos of herself to the student and a friend.
Nuttall said after the verdict that he will push for probation for his client.
“She would be suitable for that,” Nuttall said. “This young woman does not belong in prison.”
Deputy District Attorney Liz Owen characterized Nelson as someone who went far beyond a casual student-teacher relationship and into a full-blown romance. And when she got caught, she tried to lie her way out of it, Owen said.
During her closing arguments, Owen 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.”
The student, who is currently a 16-year-old high school student, testified last week that Nelson had initiated the relationship, inviting him to her room where she kissed him and later gave him oral sex. He said the sex act happened multiple times in her classroom, sometimes in between classes and after school.
Nelson denied the student’s version of what happened, but admitted to giving the student oral sex – but, she said, only after being threatened by him that he’d expose their relationship. She also worried that a potential scandal could cause her child to be taken away.
Sentencing for Nelson will take place on June 10.
The student and his family, meanwhile, have sued Fresno Unified School District over the incident with the teacher. The lawsuit seeks damages for negligence, sexual battery and sexual misconduct.