A former Dundalk minister accused of going online to set up a sexual liaison with a 13-year-old girl was acquitted of all charges in the case yesterday after the judge said she could not rule out the possibility that he believed he was talking to a "consenting adult" who was acting out a fantasy.
Jonathan N. Gerstner's testimony on the witness stand Monday left reasonable doubt that required a not-guilty verdict on charges of attempted second-degree rape, attempted second-degree sexual offense and solicitation of a minor using a computer, Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure said.
"I think credibility weighs in Mr. Gerstner's favor," said Leasure, who heard the case instead of a jury.
By basing her not-guilty verdicts on reasonable doubt, Leasure avoided addressing the more complex legal question that has recently bogged down Internet sting prosecutions involving fictitious victims.
Like his colleagues across the state, Gerstner's defense lawyer, Joseph Murtha, had argued that his client could not have committed a crime even if he thought he was online with a minor because the person on the other end of the keyboard was not a 13-year-old girl but a female state trooper in her 20s working out of a Columbia office.
"She made her ruling based on the testimony of witnesses and the credibility of Mr. Gerstner, and therefore did not have to address ... the legal impossibility and the absence of a victim," Murtha said. "I'm relieved for Mr. Gerstner."
As Leasure issued her verdict yesterday, Gerstner, 45, cried and cradled his face in his hands.
Later, with his wife by his side, he thanked friends and family "who believed in my innocence through this whole ordeal."
"I'm grateful that the right thing happened, and I was believed by the person who mattered most in the legal proceeding," said Gerstner, who resigned as senior pastor of Inverness Presbyterian Church after his arrest and is not working as a minister. "Now, we can move ahead with our lives - wherever that goes."
Gerstner, who has five children and lives in Perry Hall, was arrested May 21 as he walked through Foxhill Park in Bowie - the meeting spot he and "jennifer000013" had picked during an online chat earlier in the day.
Although "jennifer000013" wrote that she was a 13-year-old "virgin," Gerstner testified during his daylong trial Monday that he never believed he was trading e-mails with a minor. All signs pointed to an adult, he said.
For one, the two met through a regional Yahoo romance chat room that requires a user to confirm that he or she is 18 or older before entering, he said.
Gerstner testified that he had used the same chat room, which he said catered to people in their 30s and 40s, several times in the past to set up dates with women when he was feeling depressed or stressed.
The woman, who he believed was acting out a fantasy, also seemed to be trying too hard to act like an innocent girl, he testified.
Still, he said, he was worried that the woman he was about to meet was unstable, so he insisted on calling her before they met; she sounded like a "normal, healthy" woman when he called, he testified.
She also knew just where he could go to buy condoms and gave him detailed directions - testimony Leasure noted in her ruling.
Yesterday, prosecutor Jim Dietrich said Leasure's ruling was "not unexpected," but he still believed the case needed to be tried.
"I don't think [Gerstner's] testimony was wholly incredible," he said. "When someone pretty much lays out all their indiscretions in front of the court, how can you not take that into account" when weighing credibility.