A state district judge expressed frustration with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday after a jury recommended probation for a former teacher who admitted having an improper sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.
Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court, obviously exasperated by the efforts of prosecutors Hilary LaBorde and Christi Hunting Horse, told jurors he has no choice but to follow their recommendation and place Joseph Douglas Rodgers on probation for 10 years and fine him $7,500.
Rodgers pleaded guilty to having an improper relationship between an educator and student, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Rodgers, 29, did not testify during the two-day trial, but his mother testified Monday that he thought the girl was 18 and had graduated because he taught her in an upper-level chemistry class at China Spring High School before they began their sexual relationship in July 2011.
The victim testified Tuesday to refute that claim.
Rodgers and his attorneys, Ron Moody and Jason P. Darling, asked the jury to assess punishment in the case after the judge rejected a plea bargain in August that would have called for Rodgers to get deferred adjudication probation.
LaBorde and Hunting Horse informed the judge Monday that the former student, who is now 21, would not be testifying during the punishment trial. But she testified Tuesday to refute the testimony from Rodgers’ mother.
The woman said she was a 15-year-old sophomore at China Spring when she met Rodgers, a substitute teacher in two of her classes. He knew she was on the tennis team and he coached her in private tennis lessons in the summer, she said.
Rodgers definitely knew she was not 18 and that she was returning to high school, she said. He asked her to keep their relationship secret, she said.
“I was upset because, at the time, I thought I was in a relationship,” the woman testified.
The woman told LaBorde it does not appear that Rodgers is taking responsibility for his actions if he told his mother that she was 18 and had graduated from high school.
While reviewing the jury’s verdict, Johnson recounted that prosecutors had waived two counts of sexual assault of a child, which would have required that Rodgers register as a sex offender.
They filed one count of improper relationship between educator and student, a charge that does not require sex offender registration, and recommended deferred probation, which does not result in a final conviction if probation is completed.
“I have no choice under the law but to accept your recommendation of probation, even though such a recommendation was based on the jury’s limited knowledge of the case and the very limited facts that were presented by the state,” the judge said.
LaBorde and Hunting Horse declined comment after the trial.
Johnson revoked Rodgers’ bond and ordered him jailed. No bond had been set by late Tuesday.
Johnson did not place Rodgers on probation but will sentence him Dec. 14. He called for a second presentence report to be done by the probation department because of a supplemental note on what he called a “rather disconcerting infraction.”
Rodgers, according to the report, was warned away from a tennis center in Keller in May because he was teaching tennis to teenage girls.
“I need to know a lot more about that incident,” Johnson said.
The prosecutors presented no evidence of the alleged incident for the jury’s consideration and also did not ask the victim any details of the offense.
Instead, they called as witnesses a probation supervisor and a psychologist, who both told jurors Rodgers would get better sex-offender treatment and be monitored longer if he were on probation as opposed to going to prison.
That is what LaBorde argued during final summations. She also told jurors that Rodgers abused his position of trust and that the woman would live with the incidents for the rest of her life, possibly making her unable to trust teachers or coaches if she has children of her own.
“This is a difficult case. We weren’t sure what to do,” LaBorde said. “But you are the voice of the community. If you think I am wrong with recommending probation for a teacher who has sex with a student, then tell me. Tell me with your sentence and tell me afterward.”
Moody, Rodgers’ attorney, said the case remained pending for five years because “we spent a lot of time trying to resolve it.” Once they thought it was resolved, Johnson rejected the plea agreement, he said.
“This case was given a lot of consideration by all the parties,” Moody said. “We are pleased with the jury’s verdict. We think it was an appropriate case for probation.”