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Michael Copithorne

Other Napa County Exonerations
In June 2011, 36-year-old Michael Copithorne, a teacher at Napa Christian School in Napa, California, was charged with sexually molesting a 15-year-old former student.

Copithorne, who was paralyzed from the waist down after breaking his back in a 2000 snowboarding accident, was accused of kissing the girl on three occasions and performing oral sex on the girl on one occasion.

The girl had been a student of Copithorne’s for several years at Napa Christian School, a Seventh-day Adventist school, until she graduated eighth grade in the spring of 2010.

Copithorne went to trial in Napa County Superior Court in June 2012. The girl testified based on a written list she had compiled that Copithorne kissed her during school hours on March 17 and March 19, 2010. She told the jury that sometime during the summer, after graduation, he kissed her at her home during a meeting that was arranged via a post-it note exchange while Copithorne was meeting in person with the girl and her mother.

In September 2010, according to the girl, Copithorne picked her up in his truck ostensibly to drive her to high school. She said she rode in the back seat of the truck because Copithorne’s wheelchair was in the front passenger seat. Along the way, Copithorne pulled into the middle of a supermarket parking lot and parked. There, she said, he pulled himself over and behind the seat of his truck and laid down over the drive shaft hump to perform oral sex on the girl.

The girl testified that she was taking a sex education course at the high school and suddenly became aware that she had been sexually molested. She first told a classmate and then a youth minister and ultimately police were notified and began an investigation.

The prosecution introduced scores of text messages between Copithorne’s cell phone and the girl’s cell phone, which she received after she started high school. Many of the text messages were sent by a police officer posing as the girl. In many of them, Copithorne repeatedly said that he didn’t know what she was talking about when she spoke of sexual contact. However, the prosecution said that some of the responses suggested that he was attempting to protect himself from exposure.

Copithorne testified and denied that any of the incidents occurred. He produced records showing that he was absent from the school on March 17 and March 19, 2010 when he traveled to Belize on a fly-fishing trip.

He told the jury that he fractured his spine in the snowboarding accident and subsequently steel rods were surgically implanted in his back. He said he was able to drive the vehicle with hand controls and was able to get in and out of the vehicle using his hands and arms and to settle himself into his wheelchair. Copithorne said it was physically impossible for him to have crawled from the driver’s seat into the back seat of the truck as the girl had described.

Copithorne’s wife, who also was a teacher at the school, testified to the impossibility of such a feat as well.

The defense sought to physically demonstrate for the jury how Copithorne could not have climbed into the back of the truck, but the trial judge refused to allow the demonstration. The jury was allowed to physically examine the truck, however.

Copithorne’s wife and several other teachers at the school testified to the girl’s reputation for dishonesty and her penchant for attempting to hug teachers, particularly Copithorne. The school witnesses testified to Copithorne’s reputation for honesty and devotion to teaching as well.

On June 19, 2012, the jury convicted Copithorne of oral copulation of a child under the age of 16 and three counts of lewd acts upon a child. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

While the case was on appeal, Copithorne’s appellate attorney, Cliff Gardner, filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming Copithorne’s trial attorney should have consulted a medical expert to examine Copithorne regarding his ability to crawl into the back seat. Gardner said an expert contacted after the trial had confirmed it would have been physically impossible for Copithorne to extricate himself from the driver’s seat and get into the back seat. In October 2014, the First District California Court of Appeal overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the judge had given erroneous jury instructions that allowed the jurors to convict Copithorne for crimes committed “on or around” March 17 and 19, 2010, the dates of when Copithorne was in Belize.

Moreover, the appeals court ruled that the judge should have allowed the defense to physically demonstrate how Copithorne got in and out of his truck and his inability to move around inside the vehicle. Such a demonstration “went to the heart of the question of (Copithorne’s) guilt or innocence…and the demonstration would have been extremely probative of his physical abilities inside the truck,” the appeals court said.

The appeals court also ruled that the judge erroneously barred the release of some of the girl’s psychological records which related to her credibility and held that the records should have been disclosed to the defense.

On November 19, 2014, Copithorne was released from prison on bond. In December 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/30/2016
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:5 years
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No