By Luke Lavoie, Baltimore Sun Media Group
1:46 PM EST, November 14, 2013
A student life counselor and overnight aide supervising deaf children at the Maryland School for the Deaf groped two of his young charges, a Howard County jury found Wednesday.
Clarence Cepheus Taylor III, a 38-year-old deaf man who had worked at the school's Columbia campus, was convicted of two counts of child sexual abuse and acquitted of another. The jury deadlocked on four other counts.
The case, which began when three young women stepped forward to tell police years after the abuse, closes a trying chapter for the Maryland School for the Deaf, a public school with about 400 students that is free to state residents. School officials said in a statement that the institution "respects the verdict."
And they asked that "all persons respect the privacy of our students and their families."
Taylor had been accused of groping seven girls, ages 10 to 13, and kissing some on the lips. The victims testified that Taylor touched them inappropriately in the hallways and common areas of the school's dormitory. The alleged abuse took place from 2008 to 2011.
The case presented an extraordinary challenge for the prosecution and the defense, because sign language was needed to communicate every detail of the trial proceedings. Four American Sign Language interpreters were tasked with signing everything said in the courtroom and speaking everything signed by deaf witnesses and the defendant.
"It was very challenging," Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Broten said of prosecuting the case, which hinged on the testimony of the seven female students, all of whom are deaf, as well as the video of Howard County police interrogating Taylor for more than four hours with the help of an ASL interpreter.
"We have devoted a lot of time, energy and resources to bring the case to justice," Broten said.
Taylor's attorney, Brandon Mead, said his client may appeal.
The jury deliberated for about 10 hours before returning the mixed verdict. Taylor is scheduled to be retried on the four remaining counts of child sexual abuse in May.
Three charges of solicitation of child pornography, which stemmed from Taylor's allegedly texting some of the victims asking for photos of their breasts, were dropped by the state's attorney's office after the prosecution could not confirm that the messages were exchanged in Howard County.
The Maryland School for the Deaf has two campuses, one in Columbia, for pre-school through eighth grade, and one in Frederick, through 12th grade. About one-third of the students live at the school, according to its website.
The school is primarily supported by state funds.
The sign language process during the trial often resulted in prolonged silence between questions and answers, with occasional interruptions and corrections by the interpreters, and also contributed to more than 80 private conferences between attorneys from both sides at Judge William V. Tucker's bench.
Prior to opening statements, Tucker implemented an uncommon rule forbidding sign language communication by people in the courtroom, either between spectators or between spectators and trial participants. The only exception was for the four official interpreters and those communicating to them.
"It's a challenge because you can never get into an exact flow of asking questions, and it's also difficult because you don't really get inflection in someone's voice," Mead said.
Mead also said the use of interpreters makes it more difficult for the jury to evaluate the credibility, body language and tone of a witness.
"People tend to draw their attention to someone who is speaking, so there is a possibility the jury was focusing on the interpreter instead of focusing on the witness, their mannerisms and reactions to questions," Mead said.
The case became more challenging after Taylor took the stand in his defense. He rebutted what prosecutors interpreted as statements of guilt made during his police interview. He said that the interpreter skewed his responses and that he occasionally misunderstood questions.
During the police interview, two interpreters were used, one hearing and one hearing-impaired. Mead said more interpreters were needed.
"You saw the interpreters correct one another. You saw the need to have four individuals going back and forth, stopping, correcting and clarifying," he said.
According to police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn, it is police procedure to bring in at least one interpreter.
Broten said she disagreed that anything was "lost in translation."
During cross-examination, Taylor acknowledged he might have accidentally touched the girls in passing, while other times he adamantly denied the incidents happened.
Mead said he recommended that Taylor file an appeal, citing Tucker's jury instructions as grounds. He said the jury should have been told to consider each case separately and to discount evidence produced in support of the three child pornography charges.
"I don't think any reasonable juror given the right instruction could have reached a verdict of guilty in this case," Mead said.
Taylor, whose bond was revoked, will remain incarcerated at the Howard County Detention Center until his sentencing, scheduled for Jan. 31.
Taylor faces a maximum of 50 years in prison — 25 years for each guilty count. According to Broten, the state's recommendations for such convictions usually fall between seven and 13 years per count.
This story has been updated.