Jury finds former schoolteacher not guilty for striking student

The action was out of love — not anger — argued the defense
ausage@samoanews.com

A six-member, all-female jury delivered a 'not guilty' verdict in the case against a former Coleman Elementary School teacher this week, who was charged with one count of child abuse, a felony, and one count of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. The charges stem from an incident involving an 11-year-old student thatTony Leatualevao, 39, struck with a wooden paddle late last year.

Upon acquittal, Leatualevao, who was out on a $5,000 surety bond, broke down and cried — in front of the jury and the judges.

His wife, who was sitting a few feet behind him inside the courtroom, was also in tears when she heard the verdict.

Chief Justice Michael Kruse thanked and acknowledged the jury for their hard work.

After dismissal, Leatualevao hugged his defense team — Public Defender Douglas Fiaui and PD's lead investigator.

When asked for a comment about the verdict outside the courthouse, prosecutor Robert Morris said — in a loud voice while walking away from Samoa News — “I respect the jury’s verdict.”

Fiaui told Samoa News that he appreciates the jury’s service.

“I’m glad they were able to follow the evidence and the law, and I appreciate them for that. This is what our jury system is all about and it’s a great system," he said.

Speaking of the verdict, Leatualevao praised God for answering his prayers, through the work of the jury, his defense team, and everyone who supported him.

“It was a sweet sound to hear when I heard the verdict. I broke down, and it was the feeling of joy and happiness, because this was the moment I was waiting for,” Leatualevao told Samoa News outside the courtroom, after the veridict.

LEATUALEVAO'S TESTIMONY

Leatualevao was the last of three witnesses the defense called to the stand. A teacher for over a decade, he told the jury teaching is his passion.

He admitted that he spanked the victim 2 times, because he wanted him to learn a lesson, so he can be an honest and reliable student, and most of all, to put a stop to his disrespectful behavior.

“I treat my students as my own children. I want them to be well behaved in class so they can learn something good from me. I show them love because I do care about them. I act as a teacher, a father, and a friend to them."

CLOSING ARGUMENT

Counsel Morris said the case against Leatualevao stemmed from an incident where he used unreasonable force to discipline an 11-year-old student, resulting in life threatening bruises to his buttocks, which made him unable to walk for almost 3 weeks.

Morris said a lot has been said about the victim’s misbehavior in school but regardless, the defendant’s action was not justified and he was not allowed under the school's policy to use unreasonable force to discipline any student.

The prosecutor claimed the main reason why the defendant ‘sasa’ the victim with the wooden paddle, was because the victim disobeyed him and not because the child broke any school rules or misbehaved in class. He added that the "sasa" was for fighting after school, which happened off campus.

Morris reminded the jury of the victim and his mother's testimony — that the child was struck five times by the defendant — and asked the jury to consider the photos of the victim’s injuries, and other evidence such as the written statement by the defendant and the wooden paddle that was used.

Morris pointed out that using unreasonable force to discipline students is not allowed under the law, and that’s why Coleman Elementary School has a zero tolerance policy for corporal punishment.

“We must put a stop to this type of action, and the only way we can put a stop to it, is for you to find this former teacher guilty of both counts,” the prosecutor said.

When it was his turn, Fiaui told jurors that Leatualevao did his very best to teach, advise, and discipline the victim so he could become a better person in the future. He said the victim has a history of misbehaving, and it was almost every day that Leatualevao had to talk to him about his behavior problem.

“Leatualevao is a qualified teacher, and his action was justified under the law. He disciplined this young victim out of love, not anger. He wanted him to learn a good lesson so he will become a good example for other students,” Fiaui said.

According to Fiaui, one of the reasons why this case was brought before the court was because the victim’s parents failed to play their part as quoted in the Bible.

Opening the Bible that was on the witness table, Fiaui read Proverbs 13:24 in Samoan: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”

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