Crime

‘I will not waver,’ judge tells ex-coach convicted of molesting student

Former Hancock coach led from courtroom in cuffs after sentencing

Former Hancock High Coach Leslie Dewitt is led from court in Bay St. Louis on Oct. 17, 2016 after she was found guilty of two counts of unlawful touching of a child for lustful purposes.
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Former Hancock High Coach Leslie Dewitt is led from court in Bay St. Louis on Oct. 17, 2016 after she was found guilty of two counts of unlawful touching of a child for lustful purposes.

A judge on Thursday ruled he will not grant a new trial or lower the 30-year prison term for a former teacher and coach convicted of molesting a student.

Circuit Judge Larry Bourgeois had given Leslie Danielle DeWitt the maximum penalty for touching a child for lustful purposes on Oct. 17 after a Hancock County jury found her guilty on two counts. He sentenced her to 15 years, day for day, with each prison term to be served consecutively for a total of 30 years.

DeWitt taught at Hancock High School and was an assistant coach on the girls basketball team. The victim was a player.

“I will not waver,” Bourgeois said as DeWitt, wearing jail garb and her hair braided, quietly waited for his rulings.

“This court will stand by its rulings.”

Bourgeois said he will issue an order by Tuesday on DeWitt’s request for a bond while her case is appealed.

DA speaks out

“This perpetrator was entrusted with the duty to protect, coach and teach children,” District Attorney Joel Smith said later Thursday.

“She betrayed that trust and used the opportunity to engage in an intentional pattern of criminal conduct. The sentence handed down by Judge Bourgeois demonstrates a commitment to the protection of our children and provides accountability for someone who betrayed the trust that was placed in her.”

In denying the motions, Bourgeois cited case law, state law and a Supreme Court decision.

Bourgeois said he’s sent people to prison for a longer time than this in sex-crime cases.

DeWitt was found not guilty on two counts of sexual battery, each punishable by up to 30 years.

‘I was a child’

The victim, now a young woman, has said she was 13 or 14 years old when DeWitt befriended her, Bourgeois said.

DeWitt “was her friend, she was her lover, and she was her mother,” the judge said.

“She was everything to me,” Bourgeois said, reading from the young woman’s letter.

“I was a little girl and I was scared. But now I am a United States Marine and they have taught me honor, courage and integrity.”

Dewitt is a 34-year-old wife and mother.

During a five-day trial, prosecutors presented witnesses and evidence showing DeWitt had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student and basketball player from Dec. 1, 2009, through July 30, 2010.

Bourgeois has said DeWitt showed no remorse, and he took that into consideration.

Her attorney’s arguments

Jim Davis, her attorney, had argued three motions before the judge on Monday:

1: He said DeWitt should have a new trial because one jury had lived in Hancock County for only two months. Davis had asked for a mistrial minutes before the jury returned its verdicts.

2: Davis asked Bourgeois to reconsider the length of her prison term, saying 30 years was excessive and too harsh. He said the judge treated DeWitt unfairly because of her sexual orientation and because she is a woman. He noted cases in which defendants in similar cases received less prison time.

3: He asked that DeWitt be released on bond pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court. He said she has strong family ties to the community, good character, no felony background and is not a flight risk.

DeWitt groomed the victim for two years before acting on her sexual desires. It also cannot be overlooked that the state’s sentencing recommendation considered the clear evidence of sexual crimes and grooming against a separate victim found in text messages on DeWitt’s cell phone.

Assistant District Attorney Alison Baker

The District Attorney’s Office argued against the defense attorney’s motions. ADA Alison Baker asked Bourgeois to deny all three requests.

How the DA’s Office responded

1: Baker said Davis knew the juror in question had lived in Hancock County for only two months because of questions asked during jury selection. The juror was qualified to serve.

Baker said Mississippi law provides only two instances in which a juror can be invalidated or a verdict overturned because of a juror: If a juror cannot fulfill his or her duties or has shown impartiality.

“There was no showing that the juror in question was biased or not impartial,” she said.

2: Baker said the sentence was not excessive, but appropriate given “the totality of the circumstances.”

“It was not excessive in light of sentences given in other similar cases, the age of the victim, the fact that multiple assaults took place over the course of several months and in light of the position of trust she held over this victim,” Baker said.

“It was also based on the fact that DeWitt groomed the victim for two years before acting on her sexual desires. It also cannot be overlooked that the state’s sentencing recommendation considered the clear evidence of sexual crimes and grooming against a separate victim found in text messages on DeWitt’s cellphone.”

3: The DA’s Office argued against an appeal bond, saying DeWitt is a flight risk, a danger to the victim, and based on evidence uncovered of other victims, a danger to other alleged victims.

Before her arrest

DeWitt was assistant coach for the Hancock High and Harrison Central High girls basketball teams for two season each, respectively, before she became head girls basketball coach and a special education teacher at Pearl River Central High in 2012.

DeWitt resigned from Pearl River Central in January 2013. Hancock County deputies arrested her two months later.

Pearl River County deputies arrested her on similar charges in June 2013. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict her.

Her husband, Anthony DeWitt, is Hancock High baseball coach. He has stood beside her throughout her prosecution.

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