Knodel trial in hands of jury
FARGO—A verdict in the trial of the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the year accused of having sex with a 17-year-old student in 2009 rests solely on the testimony of the alleged victim, the defense attorney for Aaron Knodel said in closing arguments Monday.
With only her testimony and no physical evidence, the jury should acquit 36-year old Knodel, attorney Robert Hoy said in Cass County District Court.
Prosecutors disagreed in their closing, telling the jury that not only is the woman's testimony credible, physical evidence of handwritten notes and call logs should be carefully considered during deliberations, which began about 1 p.m. on Monday.
Jurors had not reached a verdict when they ended deliberations for the day about 4:30 p.m. Deliberations will continue Tuesday.
Monday morning's court session began with prosecutors wrapping up their questioning of West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel's wife. Marie Knodel testified that she does not believe handwritten notes left in a copy of a "Twilight" novel are from her husband.
"In my opinion, it wasn't his writing so I didn't pore over them," she said of the notes.
The student, now 23, testified last week that she gave Knodel a copy of the book and he returned it with 93 notes inside. A criminal intelligence analyst, testifying for the prosecution on Thursday, said the handwriting on the notes was likely Knodel's, although her opinion was not strong. She did not believe the notes were written by the student.
State Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers—who is prosecuting this case—also added into evidence pieces of the student's homework while in high school that included drawings and written phrases by Knodel that appear to match those used in the notes found in the "Twilight" book.
The prosecution tested the book and notes for DNA, but none was found. Byers said DNA is not needed from the notes; jurors only need to read the content.
"I don't know how you can read those as a whole and not come to the conclusion that anything other than a sexual relationship was going on," he said.
During the former student's testimony last week, prosecutors submitted a diagram of Knodel's home based on the woman's memory. She has claimed she and Knodel first became physical in his home. During his testimony, Knodel said the diagram of his home was inaccurate.
Marie Knodel testified Monday morning that photos of their home could be found online in late 2009 when the couple put it on the market.
"Is the reason you moved in 2009 because you knew what your husband did in your house?" Byers asked Marie Knodel on Monday.
Marie Knodel later said the family moved from the Fargo School District so their children would be in the West Fargo School District.
In his closing arguments, Hoy said the former student admitted doing a Google search of Aaron Knodel, where she could have found his address and photos of the home.
When the student was called back to the stand to testify Monday, she said she only Googled Knodel once, after she went to law enforcement with the allegations.
Like her first time on the stand, Hoy again questioned her motives for reporting the alleged affair with Knodel. She repeated Monday that she has consulted an attorney about possible civil litigation against Knodel and the West Fargo School District.
In his closing arguments, Byers and state Assistant Attorney General Paul Emerson said there is no argument that Knodel was a great teacher and coach, but that does not mean Knodel is innocent.
"There are plenty of excellent bankers, plumbers, lawyers that have been convicted of crimes their friends never thought they would commit," Emerson said. "Being a good or great teacher doesn't mean he wasn't a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Byers said although the former student may have been a troubled teenager, it does not mean she is making up the story.
"You know what that makes her, the perfect victim," he said.
Byers said Knodel was probably banking on the fact no one would believe the student if the story came out.
He said although the defense would like the jury to believe the phone calls are just the product of a teacher going the extra mile, there are too many to ignore.
"It almost makes you forget just how extraordinary those records are," he said. "Everyone wants to say that is just a teacher going the extra mile. You shouldn't buy that."
Hoy finished his case Monday morning by calling character witnesses, including a West Fargo High School counselor and the Rev. James Meyer, who has served as Knodel's priest.
In his closing statements, Hoy reminded the jury there is no physical evidence, no DNA evidence, rape kit or other witnesses.
"Under the state's theory, they are relying solely on the testimony of the (student) because that is the only testimony there is that any of this is true," Hoy said.
Knodel was charged Aug. 22 with five counts of felony corruption or solicitation of a minor. Knodel faces two Class B felony charges for alleged sexual acts in his classroom and three Class C felony charges for alleged acts that took place at his residence and in the student's car.
Since the trial began on April 21, Hoy called more than a dozen character witnesses to testify on behalf of Knodel; many were teachers who also testified that privacy was hard to come by at West Fargo High School. Hoy said it would not have been possible for Knodel and the student to get physical in the school.
The Forum typically does not identify possible victims of alleged sex-related crimes.
If convicted, Knodel could be sentenced up to 35 years in prison.
The North Dakota teacher licensing board has taken no action on Knodel's license. The West Fargo School District on Aug. 25 suspended the highly decorated teacher and academic coach without pay or benefits.