A 44-year-old Montgomery County special education teacher was found innocent yesterday of charges that he molested a 12-year-old student during an overnight school trip last September.
The end to the week-long trial of Hunter Pope Mulford came after the County Circuit Court jury had deliberated for little more than an hour before announcing its verdict.
"We felt something happened in (Mulford's) room that night," jury foreman Morris Goldfarb said after the panel had been dismissed. "But the prosecutor didn't give us enough evidence."
Mulford, who is on unpaid administrative leave from his job at the Newsport Middle School in Kensington, smiled slightly and started to turn pale as the verdict was read. "I'm in a state of shock, because nothing like this has ever happened to me before," he said afterward.
Mulford had originally been charged with six different offenses involving two sixth-grade boys, but four of the charges were dropped during the course of the trial.
Two charges were dismissed for technical reasons and two charges involving the second, 11-year-old boy were dropped after the boy repeatedly testified "I don't remember" when questioned about the events of the night.
"I'm not outraged at the jurors," the mother of the 11-year-old said yesterday after the trial ended. "They had to go with what was there. There was just so much that couldn't be said."
The prosecution based its case on the testimony of the two boys, who first told their stories to their mothers four months after the school trip. Several jurors said after the verdict that inconsistencies in the boys' testimony, coupled with the 11-year-old's lapse in memory, contributed to the speed of their decision.
The defense had enlisted several of Mulford's colleagues to testify that the boys had a "poor" reputation for truthfulness.
A resident of McLean, Mulford has also been charged by Maryland State Police with five counts of second and third degree sexual offenses in a separate case in Frederick. A preliminary hearing in that case is scheduled tomorrow.
Mulford has also been indicted for having sexual relations or sexual contact with one of the two boys on school grounds Jan. 29, the date the boy told his mother about that alleged incident and the alleged events of the previous September.
None of the other charges were allowed into evidence during the trial that ended yesterday.
"When all the facts are out," said the 12-yeard-old's mother, "people will decide differently. There is absolutely no question in my mind that the man is guilty. He knows he's guilty. He'll have to live with that. Right now, we have to deal with (her son), who's been raked through the coals."
Both mothers said they have withdrawn their children from Newport Middle School in Kensington because of the publicity surrounding the trial. "He was being teased endlessly," said one. "The teachers have even given him a hard time."
Mulford has been on leave from the school since the two boys made their accusations in late January. He is appealing the recommendation of School Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo that he be dismissed.
"I intend to win my appeal (of the superintendent's recommendation) because I am not guilty of any wrongdoing," said Mulford, as his family sipped champagne in his lawyer's office. "Teaching is my career. It's very difficult to start a new career at 44."
Mulford said a publishing company has contracted with him to write a book about his experiences. "besides the obvious drama," Mulford said, "it will address the general problem posed to the teacher."
Mulford said accusations of this nature "are an increasing danger . . . Children are increasingly disrespectful of teachers and feel that they can retaliate against them." Mulford also said that the county school's "support system for teachers who deal with problem children needs re-examination."
Mulford has taught in Montgomery County schools seven years, specializing in teaching students considered slow learners.
A spokesman for the Montgomery County School Board said Mulford's appeal will be heard June 28. "What we do is independent of what the courts do."
Mulford is the second Montgmery County teacher this year to be recommended for dismissal in connection with allegations of sexual contact with students. Other teachers have said they object to the school board's handling of these kinds of cases.
"The personnel department should be an advocate of the school system," said Hank Heller, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "They should not act on hearsay evidence from children. They should support the teacher. The idea that personnel is separate from police action is ridiculous. It's double jeopardy."
Another Montgomery County teacher, who asked not to be identified, had a slightly different view. Such accusations by a student, he said, are "something you think about.
"But I don't believe that teachers who take proper precautions in terms of protecting themselves and who are responsible will ever have a serious problem."
But under the present system, Heller said, "if I were still teaching I'd never be alone with a student."