Expulsion hearing buoys Clovis wrestler's lawyers

A day after a Clovis Unified panel recommended expulsion for a Buchanan High student accused of committing sexual battery during wrestling practice, the teen's legal team was anything but discouraged.

While the outcome wasn't what they had hoped, the emotionally charged hearing laid bare problems in the case against Preston Hill, they said -- and provided opportunities to fight criminal charges that the 17-year-old also faces.

With his trial expected to begin Jan. 27 in Fresno County Superior Court, Hill's attorneys say they can now defend him with conflicting statements that emerged during the expulsion hearing.

"With this evidence, I guarantee he will be vindicated," said attorney Charles Magill, who represents Hill.

Hill was charged with sexual battery after Clovis police reported that he allegedly rammed two fingers into a teammate's anus during wrestling practice in July -- an allegation that has shocked the community, placed high school wrestling in a bad light, and raised concerns about bullying in school.

Michael Idiart, a former assistant Fresno County district attorney, said prosecutors could still get a conviction -- despite the conflicting testimony at the expulsion hearing. Juries often convict on the sole testimony of the accuser, Idiart said.

But all the same, "this will be an uphill battle for the prosecution," he said, because of problems in Thursday's testimony. "My advice is to drop it. The DA has more important cases to spend their resources on."

District Attorney Elizabeth Egan does not comment about pending cases, but a top prosecutor -- deputy chief Rudy Carrillo -- attended the hearing and took notes. Clovis officials also aren't talking, citing student confidentiality.

Going public

Magill said Hill's parents requested a public expulsion hearing so their supporters could hear the evidence first-hand.

Typically, expulsion hearings are confidential and last a few hours, said Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants. Hill's hearing and deliberations took nearly 12 hours.

Parents can ask for their child's expulsion hearing to be public, but it rarely happens. Avants said only six of the 98 students expelled last school year asked for a hearing, and none wanted it open to the public.

After deliberating one hour, a three-member panel unanimously concluded that Hill committed sexual battery, which carries an automatic expulsion. The panel also found other grounds to expel Hill: that he bullied his teammate, committed an obscene act, and caused or attempted to cause injury to another student.

The school board now has 10 working days to hold a hearing and vote whether to uphold, modify or reject the panel's recommendation. Typically, a board matter involving student discipline is confidential, but parents can request that it be public, Avants said. Magill said that decision has not yet been made.

At the hearing, no one disputed that Hill, a senior, performed a "butt-drag" maneuver on a freshman teammate during a July practice at Buchanan. Hill has admitted to grabbing the boy's butt, but not penetrating the boy's anus.

Tyrell Blanche, the school's head wrestling coach, testified that the butt-drag is a legitimate maneuver in which wrestlers are taught to grab the leg right below the butt cheeks for the move. In matches, he said, anything can happen, even penetration of an opponent's anus.

The alleged victim and his parents, however, testified that Hill went too far. The boy's parents told the panel that Hill is a bully. They said their son stood up to Hill after Hill took his water bottle during weight training. Hill then made a threatening gesture with his fingers to say he was going to use the butt-drag move at wrestling practice.

The panel apparently was swayed by a sworn declaration from another wrestler who said he also saw Hill make a gesture with his fingers.

In addition, the alleged victim said he was lying on his stomach when Hill used the maneuver. The coach testified that the butt drag wouldn't be used on an opponent in that position.

Legal fight looms

But Magill said the testimony offered fell short of proving the charges at the expulsion hearing. He pointed out that prosecutors must prove them beyond a reasonable doubt, a much higher standard than what the school panel needed to expel Hill.

At the trial, Magill said, prosecutors will have a difficult time explaining the conflicting statements made by the boy and his parents at the hearing. In addition, their testimony contradicted that of the Clovis police officer, who said he couldn't determine whether a crime had been committed.

During the hearing, the boy cried when he talked about the incident, but showed little emotion when Magill cross-examined him, according to Magill. The boy's testimony was not open to the public.

Whether the boy was crying when he spoke to his parents and to police hours after the July 15 incident is an issue, Magill said.

His parents testified that their son was sobbing before police arrived. According to Magill, the boy testified he also cried when he spoke with Clovis police officer Mark Bradford.

Bradford, however, testified that the boy wasn't crying during his interview. He also said his report doesn't mention the boy having red or swollen eyes.

Bradford also testified that the boy told him Hill made the hand gesture once before the incident. But in a sworn declaration, the boy said Hill made the hand gesture twice.

His mother, who signed the declaration, testified that her son made a mistake. She said she notified the school district's lawyer of the mistake on Wednesday, but it wasn't brought to the attention of the panel until Magill raised the issue.

"Their credibility is at issue," Magill said.

The boy's father, however, told the panel that his son never has wavered from his account of what happened to him. On the other hand, Hill's account can't be trusted, he said.

If convicted, Magill said, Hill might have to register as a sex offender for life.

Typically, a juvenile is tried by a judge -- not a jury. But a new law gives defendants, including juveniles, the right to choose a jury trial, if they face life registration for a sex crime, Magill said. A jury trial could be open to the public, he said.

Hill's lawyers haven't decided whether to pursue that option, Magill said.

It may not matter, though, because Magill thinks a judge will throw the case out before it gets to that stage.

"I don't see it going to a jury," he said.

Related stories from Fresno Bee