Did the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year have sex with one of his students?
Just last week, it seemed like the jury in the trial of West Fargo High School teacher Aaron Knodel was close to answering "no." They'd unanimously decided to dismiss three of the five charges against him, with only one juror holding out for a guilty verdict in the remaining two.
Then it came out that this lone juror failed to mention that she had been a victim of sexual abuse. Shortly after arriving at court on April 29, the juror became ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. There, she confessed to deputies that she'd lied during jury selection.
Now the prosecution wants a mistrial. For Knodel, that means another round of listening to prosecutor Jon Byers accuse him of having sex with a then-17-year-old student in 2009 in his classroom, at his home, and in a car.
Knodel has maintained his innocence on all charges. He admitted he used to have lengthy phone calls with the accuser, but that he only meant to be a listening ear to her rough home life: the death of a family member and suspected drug use. He said after time, the phone calls became a burden for him and his family, and he felt that the student was overstepping boundaries.
The prosecution's case hinged on the accuser's testimony and phone logs showing about 35 hours' worth of conversation between her and Knodel.
On Monday, the North Dakota Attorney General's Office received a flood of letters from students, teachers, and other supporters of the Knodel family, asking for charges to be dropped. There was no direct evidence in the prosecution's case against Knodel, some argued. Others pointed out this former Teacher of the Year has already been suspended from school for about a year without pay.
"Some of the general feelings of the writers is that with the jury split like that, it's unlikely that retrying this will reach a different result," says Knodel's attorney, Robert Hoy.
The judge has the option of letting the remaining 11 jurors decide, but since the circumstances clearly qualify for a mistrial, he's giving the prosecution two weeks to file a motion. Hoy will have a chance to respond, then the judge will make the final decision.
"It was frustrating for me, frustrating for everyone involved, including the other jurors," Hoy says. "It's certainly disappointing for Mr. Knodel. We were hoping to be done with this so he could put it behind him, let him and his family get on with life, and it's incredibly frustrating and disappointing to have it work out like it did."
Send news tips to Susan Du.