More than two years after he was arrested, and three months after a jury failed to reach a verdict in his first trial, a former Franklin County High School teacher and assistant football coach was acquitted just before Christmas on a charge he molested an underage female student.
A six-person jury of three men and three women deliberated about one-and-one-half hours Dec. 22 before returning to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis with a not guilty verdict against Gerald D. Tate, 31, of Apalachicola.
In rendering its verdict, the jury determined Tate had not committed lewd or lascivious molestation of a female high school student under age 16 at the time, which would have been a second degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
In addition, the jury declined to convict Tate of a lesser charge of committing an unnatural and lascivious act, a second degree misdemeanor.
Tate was arrested Sept. 24, 2014 after detectives from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office questioned him regarding an incident dating back to the final week of the 2013-14 school year.
A news release issued by the sheriff’s office at the time said the investigation was initiated by the sheriff’s office on Sept. 12, 2014, after then-Superintendent Nina Marks contacted both the department as well as the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Marks reported that during the first week of Sept. 2014, the 15-year-old student told school officials Tate had made inappropriate comments to her. The following week, Marks contacted DCF and the sheriff’s office to further investigate the matter.
Detective Brett Johnson, who testified at the trial, had reported the female student made multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Tate during a two-week investigation, and that investigators were able to confirm Tate “sexually molested a child and threatened that there would be consequences if anyone was told about it.”
Crime scene technicians from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) tested carpet in Room 1017 of Building #1000, a location identified by the victim, and found it positive for semen, according to a report filed by Detective Duane Cook.
Cook’s probable cause affidavit said the female student alleged Tate “forced her to masturbate him until he ejaculated on the floor.”
Cook’s report said Tate confirmed to investigators he was alone in his classroom with the student sometime on the afternoon in question, and that she “became very flirtatious” and grabbed his genitals. He told police he had then stimulated himself, according to the report.
However, the jury did not learn of Tate’s statements to detectives, since defense attorney Kevin Steiger had filed a motion in Jan. 2016 to suppress these statements on the grounds detectives failed to meet one of the four criteria required of the Miranda warnings.
In his motion, Steiger, a public defender, argued that while Tate was told he had a right to have an attorney present at his Sept. 24, 2014 questioning, he was not advised of his right to have an attorney appointed if he could not afford one.
“You have a right to a lawyer and him here before we talk,” Johnson told Tate in the videotaped interview. “You ain’t under arrest, so one ain’t appointed. But you ain’t got to talk to me. Do you understand?”
Tate responded “yes sir” and the detective continued.
“At any time during this interview, you can say Detective Johnson, I don’t want to talk any more. Do you understand?” said the detective, and Tate again replied “yes sir.”
According to Steiger’s motion, Tate later offered to waive his right to counsel, at which time Cook reiterated that “you don’t have to answer something if you don’t want to, you can stop this at anytime….You can have a lawyer here. We can postpone….we can’t postpone you being arrested but we can postpone you having a lawyer here.”
In his motion Steiger contended that when Cook began questioning Tate, which led to the apparently incriminating statements, “there was no reference whatsoever as to the right to have counsel appointed.”
Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson opted not to contest Steiger’s motion, which would have prompted a suppression hearing where Lewis would have had to decide if indeed Tate’s rights had been violated.
Instead, the state’s attorney’s office did not present to the jury Tate’s statements to detectives and instead relied on the victim’s testimony as well as evidence of semen stains on the carpet.
In an Oct. 5 motion, following the Sept. 23 hung jury, Steiger tried unsuccessfully to convince the judge to move the trial outside of Franklin County, due to media coverage as well as the likelihood the alleged incident would be widely known since it had occurred at the public high school.
In addition to the alleged victim, also testifying at the Dec. 22 trial was teacher Kassi Malcolm, staffer Teresa Segree, Deputy Jason Register and FDLE staffers Amy George and Jack Martin.
The father of the victim has lodged a civil suit against both Tate and the school district, alleging that “nothing was done to Tate at all” by the district after it learned of the alleged incident.
The district, which has disputed the claims made by the plaintiff, has had that case moved to federal court in Tallahassee.