A Cobb County judge used a rare procedure to rule that a former Marietta High teacher was not guilty of sexual assault charges stemming from an affair with a 17-year-old student.
Judge Robert Flournoy bypassed the jury and issued a directed verdict Wednesday afternoon in the case against 36-year-old Christopher King, who admitted to having a sexual relationship with the girl.
"It's gross, it's awful, but it ain't illegal," said Flournoy. "This was a consensual relationship."
In June, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that, when the student is a willing participant and is 16 or older, the student’s consent can be a defense for teachers facing a sexual assault charge. The judge referenced that decision in his ruling.
“I have a feeling the Georgia Legislature is going to amend this law,” Flournoy said.
Defense attorney Scott Semrau said it wouldn’t be surprising if this case were used by legislators as a reason to change the consent defense. Semrau doesn’t know of any similar case that’s been prosecuted since the state Supreme Court ruling.
“That ruling really guts the prosecution,” Semrau said.
The judge’s decision followed Wednesday morning testimony from the girl, who as a state witness testified the affair was consensual.
Asked by Semrau if she ever felt intimidated or coerced by King, the girl responded, “Absolutely not.”
"Have you ever wavered on that point?" Semrau asked. "No," the girl said.
The girl looked in King's direction several times during her testimony, smiling nervously. Though she admitted to jitters, her answers were resolute.
If he had been convicted of sexual assault, King faced 10 to 30 years in prison.
"[The student] was obviously persuasive, " said Semrau. "She was thoroughly knowledgeable about what she wanted."
Semrau said his client, who is now a salesman, would like to resume his relationship with the girl.
"I know he cares very deeply about her, but at this point the ball's in her court," he said. As for teaching again, Semrau said, "Realistically, [King]'s put [that] behind him."
The girl's testimony revealed that King began personal correspondences in the fall of 2008, soon after they first met as student and teacher. "He called about a Steelers game," the student said.
Her father, who testified Tuesday, said he was concerned that a teacher was contacting his daughter at home about an issue not related to school.
"My dad overreacts to everything," she said. "He has very high moral standards. He's never gotten a speeding ticket."
Since the romance with King became public her relationship with her father has suffered, she said.
Her involvement with King was much more relaxed, she said.
"We'd go shopping, we'd go out to dinner, we'd go to movies ... things dating couples do," she said. "Piedmont Park, that was like our place."
King was in the process of divorcing his wife, with whom he has two small children, when they began dating, she said.
"He was unhappy in his marriage," she said.
She confirmed details that were revealed in court Tuesday about when their relationship became sexual.Their first tryst took place at a hotel on Barrett Parkway, she said.
"It evolved the way I assume any sexual encounter does," she said.
She said when the relationship became public after King's arrest she lost some friendships and transferred to a college preparatory program at Kennesaw State from Marietta High.
On Tuesday, Semrau acknowledged that his client was engaged in a sexual relationship with the girl.
"They were in love," Semrau told jurors. "This may be a bad idea, it may be taboo, but it's not illegal."
Cobb County prosecutor Maurice Brown unsuccessfully argued that King used his position to take advantage of a romantically naive teenager. "He led her to believe he was in love with her," Brown said in his opening statement. "He led her to believe she was in love with him."
Brown refused comment following the verdict.
King's relationship with his student turned physical last March, when the two met for a hike at Kennesaw Mountain. There, they shared their first kiss, and within a month they were having sexual intercourse, facts neither side disputes.
"The only thing that ended this relationship was Mr. King's arrest (on May 27)," Semrau said.