Matthew Ellsworth gets probation for having sex with student [UPDATE]

Does being in love mitigate the impact of criminal sexual conduct? A judge will decide today.
Does being in love mitigate the impact of criminal sexual conduct? A judge will decide today.

SEE ALSO -- Matthew Ellsworth: Sex with student not criminal because it happened during summer

High school English teacher Matthew Ellsworth, 36, had a sexual relationship with a then-17-year-old girl last summer. The girl was a student in Ellsworth's spring 2011 class at Spectrum High School, a charter school in Elk River.

During his trial last winter, Ellsworth's attorney argued, to no avail, that the sex wasn't criminal because it occurred during summer vacation, when the former teacher wasn't in a position of authority over the girl. A judge didn't buy it and found Ellsworth guilty of criminal sexual conduct on February 21.

But in a new court brief, defense attorney Allan Caplan asks the judge to sentence Ellsworth's crime as a gross misdemeanor, not a felony. The reason? Ellsworth and the student were in love.

"Put simply, (they) fell in love," Caplan writes. "Mr. Ellsworth is not a pedophile. He is a man who made a poor decision at a particularly difficult time in his life when his mother was dying of terminal cancer."

During the trial, the girl testified that she and Ellsworth began to spend time together in the computer lab during the spring semester. That eventually escalated to texting, but nothing inappropriate happened during the school year, she said.

Last summer, she began to stay at his apartment from time to time while he was out of town to look after his pets. The tryst began one evening when Ellsworth was emotionally discussing his terminally ill mother with the girl, who was sitting on his couch at the time.

"I was trying to make him feel better, so that's why I hugged him" and then kissed him, she said, adding that Ellsworth was "extremely hesitant" to engage in sexual relations.

The girl's family eventually caught wind of the relationship and alerted St. Paul police. After he was charged with criminal sexual conduct in October, Ellsworth quit a teaching job he had just started at Highview Middle School in New Brighton.

That testimony made it sound like the tryst was an isolated case, but according to a Pioneer Press report, another student told Spectrum's principal in December 2010 that she felt uncomfortable about Ellsworth. The girl told the principal that Ellsworth "complimented her hair and style" and "stands too close." She was removed from his class but Ellsworth wasn't disciplined.

Ellsworth has a lot riding on the "it was love not pedophelia" argument. If he's sentenced for felony criminal sexual conduct, he could face over a decade in prison, but if the judge elects to sentence him for a gross misdemeanor, he could avoid the slammer altogether. He's scheduled to be sentenced later today, and we'll let you know what the judge decides.

:: UPDATE -- July 11, 2 p.m. ::

Ramsey County District Judge Gary Bastian today sentenced Ellsworth to five years' probation, meaning if he behaves he'll be able to avoid the slammer after all.

Ellsworth must register as a predatory offender for at least 10 years, but if he follows the rules of his probation his felony conviction will be reduced to a misdemeanor, the Pioneer Press reports.

After today's hearing, Ellsworth's victim, Anjelica Pentheros, now 18, asked that her name be disclosed and said she "want[s] everyone to know that this [prosecution] was not my choice... I was not victimized."

"I wish to be with [Ellsworth] forever, and I don't care what it costs."

Judge Bastian dismissed an order barring Ellsworth from having contact with Pentheros. The two lovers shared a joyful embrace in the courtroom hallway after the hearing concluded.

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