Crime

Is 30 years too harsh for teacher who molested student?

Former Hancock High assistant basketball coach Leslie Danielle DeWitt testifies in Circuit Court in Bay St. Louis on Oct. 14, when the defense presented and rested its case. DeWitt was convicted Monday on two counts of child molestation for sex with a 16-year-old female student between Dec. 1, 2009, and July 30, 2010.
Former Hancock High assistant basketball coach Leslie Danielle DeWitt testifies in Circuit Court in Bay St. Louis on Oct. 14, when the defense presented and rested its case. DeWitt was convicted Monday on two counts of child molestation for sex with a 16-year-old female student between Dec. 1, 2009, and July 30, 2010. wmuller@sunherald.com

Supporters of the former Hancock High School teacher convicted of molesting a student whooped and hollered in the courtroom Monday when the jury acquitted her of the more-serious sexual battery charges, but minutes later their cheers turned to cries and gasps of disbelief when the judge delivered an unexpected sentence.

Circuit Judge Larry Bourgeois sentenced Leslie Danielle DeWitt to 30 years in prison after a jury convicted her on two counts of molesting a child while in a position of trust or authority. DeWitt, also a former Hancock High assistant basketball coach, received 15 years for each count — the maximum sentence allowed by law and one that is comparatively higher than similar recent cases.

Because it’s a sex offense, DeWitt has no chance of parole nor any type of early release such as for good behavior. The 34-year-old married mother of one must serve the entire 10,950-day sentence and register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.

Her only hope is either through a successful appeal of the conviction or the judge reconsidering and reducing the sentence. DeWitt is taking a shot at both possibilities.

Her attorney, Jim Davis, plans to file a motion to reconsider the sentence. In an interview Wednesday, Davis said he has begun working on the motion and will file it by next week.

The judge’s ruling shocked many of DeWitt’s friends and relatives in the courtroom. Some appeared confused, worriedly whispering to one another, seeking clarification of what they had heard.

Others knew immediately what it meant and began sobbing when Bourgeois said each of the 15-year sentences was to be served consecutively rather than concurrently.

“How can he do that?” one woman said amid her cries.

Supporters on both sides of the courtroom hugged one another and wept as the trial ended and a bailiff placed DeWitt in handcuffs.

“I thought the sentence was a little harsh, too,” Davis said. “Judge Bourgeois has always been fairly fair with me in sentencing, so I kind of was caught off guard with the amount of time.”

In his remarks to DeWitt during sentencing, Bourgeois underscored two main reasons for his decision — DeWitt’s position as a teacher and her failure to display remorse or guilt.

“The most precious asset that our community has is their children,” he said at the time. “The most precious asset was entrusted to you — you manipulated that child and took advantage of the trust given to you. You’ve shown no remorse whatsoever.”

How other cases compare

Matthew Davis received a slightly lighter sentence than DeWitt for sex crimes he committed against children between 2010 and 2015. Davis had faced two counts of child molestation, one count of sexual battery of a juvenile and one count of child exploitation.

He ultimately pleaded guilty, and in April, Bourgeois gave him a total of 40 years with 15 suspended, leaving 25 to serve.

Anthony Milner is serving a much shorter sentence for molesting a child. In April, Bourgeois sentenced him to five years for molesting a 12-year-old girl. Milner molested the girl once, whereas DeWitt carried on the abuse for several months.

Milner entered an “Alford plea,” which allows a defendant to plead guilty without admitting any wrongdoing, if he feels a jury could convict him. Milner did not admit guilt during his sentencing.

His attorney, Damian Holcomb, had asked for the minimum two years in prison. Bourgeois sentenced Milner to 15 years, but suspended 10, leaving five to serve.

Carlos Smith, a Stone County pastor, received a lesser sentence for the more serious charge of sexual battery of a child while in a position of trust. In February, a jury found him guilty of sexual battery of a child. The abuse began when the girl was 11 and lasted three years. Smith went to trial and lost but received a minimal sentence from Harrison County Circuit Judge Roger Clark.

The nature of the crime dictated a sentence of 20 years to life, and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Burrell had asked Clark to impose a severe punishment. Smith had been indicted by a grand jury in a similar sexual-abuse case in 2004 and ended up with a plea deal that reduced it to an indecent exposure charge.

Clark, however, imposed a 22-year sentence.

Hiram Coker, a Hancock High teacher, got a lighter sentence for two counts of sexual battery of a child while in a position of trust. In 2014, Judge John Garguilo sentenced him to 20 years after Coker pleaded guilty.

Coker admitted his guilt and apologized during sentencing.

“You were in a position of trust — you obliterated that trust,” Garguilo told Coker during sentencing.

A tough situation

In an interview Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel, who had recommended a 25- to 30-year sentence, said judges are often very thorough in considering a wide variety of factors.

“In sexual-assault crimes involving minors, a judge may consider the number of occurrences, the nature of the position of trust of the defendant and the indication of remorse or lack thereof,” Daniel said. “Every case is different and we have seen sentences that are in excess of 50 years, including life.”

Davis, however, said he has defended other cases in which Bourgeois was not stern over the defendant’s lack of remorse. He also pointed out the difficult position a defendant can be placed in if a judge is examining her emotions to look for signs of remorse.

“The problem is when you’ve gone to trial and you still have an appeal before you and there’s a chance it may get reversed, how do you show remorse for something you claim you did not do?” Davis said. “That’s kind of a tough situation for a defendant.”

Bourgeois declined to comment for this story as DeWitt’s case is still pending.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

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