LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A judge in Las Cruces has taken the unusual step of finding prosecutors failed to present enough evidence for a jury to convict a former teacher of stalking and issued an acquittal.
The action by Third Judicial District Court Fernando R. Macias drew a sharp protest from prosecutors who called the decision improper.
“Directed verdicts are so rare because judges know we can’t appeal it, and that is why we are so upset with the decision by the court,” Dona Ana County Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott D. Key said. He added that the ruling “took away the voice of the 12 people on the jury.”
Former Chaparral Middle School teacher and coach Terrance Daniels, 45, had been accused of stalking a 14-year-old student five years ago. He also was accused of writing a love letter and then calling and texting her repeatedly. He even showed up at her school and athletic events after being fired.
Macias said his ruling did not reflect any feelings he may have had about the allegations against Daniels. But he said he determined after prosecutors ended their presentation to a jury on Thursday that they didn’t show all the elements of the aggravated stalking charge.
Defense attorney Pedro Pineda told the Las Cruces Sun-News (http://bit.ly/ILC7He) the evidence did not prove that the alleged victim was frightened of Daniels. Pineda suggested that the case was pushed more by her family than the girl herself.
“Mr. Daniels’ behavior didn’t rise to that of a criminal level,” Pineda said. “It may have been kind of strange and inappropriate for someone in that position, but it wasn’t criminal,” Pineda said.
Daniels was a girl’s coach the school when prosecutors said he “fixed his focus on the child” and wrote her a page-long letter “professing his love for her.”
Daniels was fired and banned from school grounds when the girl’s parents presented the letter to the Gadsden Independent School District. Prosecutors said Daniels tried to contact the girl at least 40 more times over the next two weeks.
A restraining order was eventually filed against Daniels, but prosecutors said Daniels continued to text the girl and tried to make contact with her, and showed up on school grounds and at basketball games when she was around.
Daniels said he never did anything wrong and was innocent, said Pineda, who requested the judge to issue a so-called “directed verdict.”
Key said writing a non-threatening love letter, followed by phone calls and texts, are not in themselves criminal. But he said they became so when viewed in the broader context of the case, especially when Daniels had been told to stay away from the girl, Key said.
“There was a pattern of activity that placed this young lady in terror over a long period of time, so obviously feel the court didn’t understand the nuances of the stalking case,” said Key, who believed jurors would have convicted Daniels.
“The judge’s verdict served to pull the rug from underneath the prosecution’s feet,” Key said.