WESTMINSTER -- The state's star witness in the battery case against a middle school principal sauntered up to the witness stand in green jeans, a purple tie-dyed T-shirt, a crumpled green baseball cap, an earring in his left ear and skimpy, fuzzy beard at the tip of his chin.
In testifying against his father, North Carroll Middle School principal Richard DeLong, the youth couldn't remember the details of their fight last November, a fight that resulted in assault and battery charges being lodged against both of them.
The 17-year-old son pleaded guilty to his battery charges in juvenile court earlier. But his inconsistent testimony and stumbling court presence and the absence of a clear description of the fight over a set of keys prompted District Judge JoAnne Ellinghaus-Jones to acquit the principal of battery charges Thursday.
"This case comes down to [the son] and how strong his story is," the judge said as she found DeLong not guilty. "I believe that he doesn't remember for sure what happened that day, and when the fight did break out, he had an opportunity to get revenge on his father by telling this story, and he took that opportunity."
DeLong was charged in December after a heated argument in which he grabbed his son by the hair and hit him in the head with his right hand, court testimony showed. The injury required five stiches.
But where the state was trying to prove that DeLong acted with malice when he hit his son, the boy's testimony was inconsistent, and painted a picture of a fight between a frustrated father and a rebellious teen-ager.
The boy talked of days of "smoking grass and drinking Captain Jack," and, during cross-examination by Westminster attorney William Finch, he said he dropped out of high school because he felt "it was a communist society."
lTC DeLong, who has spent his entire two decades in education in the Carroll County school system, was silent during the two-hour hearing, occasionally sharing a smile with his son.
The two have an improving relationship, brought on in large measure by the fight, the son testified. He said he wasn't sure who threw the first punch, and said he might have even initiated the incident.
"I can't remember the whole thing too well," the son said. "My brain is pretty fried from drugs."
The son is undergoing drug abuse counseling, testimony showed, and the family attends counseling sessions together.
After the state rested its case, Finch moved for an acquittal. Father and son walked out of the courthouse arm in arm.
DeLong declined to comment on the acquittal and, in response to a reporter's question, said, "No, I will not comment. You people make your living exploiting others."
DeLong has been principal of the 890-student North Carroll Middle School since July 1988. He began his career as a teacher in the late 1960s. He became an assistant principal of New Windsor Middle School in August 1986.