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Jury finds Twin Falls teacher who had sex with teen not guilty of rape

Idaho

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Jason Benjamin looks on during his trial Wednesday in Twin Falls. | Drew Nash, Times-News

TWIN FALLS — Twelve jurors unanimously found Jason Benjamin not guilty of rape Wednesday afternoon, despite the former teacher’s admission that he knowingly had sex with an underage girl.

Benjamin, who taught at Canyon Ridge High School from 2009 until 2017, was arrested in December after a 17-year-old former student told police she and Benjamin had sex in October, a claim Benjamin confirmed in police interviews. He was charged with rape under a statute that applies when the victim is 16 or 17 years old and the perpetrator is at least three years older.

Benjamin, now 40, was 39 years old at the time of the alleged sexual encounter.

The jury trial, which began and ended Wednesday, included a video of Benjamin telling a police detective that he had sex with the girl and that he knew she was 17 at the time. After about two hours of deliberation, the jury delivered its verdict: not guilty.

Prosecuting attorney Grant Loebs described the outcome of the trial as “staggering.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Loebs said, according to a Time-News report.

Police first began investigating Benjamin’s relationship with the teenager after Canyon Ridge school officials learned of rumors that the student and Benjamin were “making out,” Twin Falls detective Rick Van Vooren told the courtroom Wednesday. The girl had been in Benjamin’s class as a junior during the 2016-17 school year.

Benjamin was no longer a teacher at Canyon Ridge at the time of the allegations – he told police he left to teach math at Robert Stuart Middle School at the start of the 2017-18 school year because he’d had an affair with another teacher at Canyon Ridge and was trying to reconcile with his wife – but the 17-year-old was still a student there.

The girl told police that she and Benjamin not only made out, but had sex. She said the pair had reconnected in the fall of 2017 after they ran into each other in public. She sent him a Facebook friend request and, after about a week of messaging back and forth, he invited her to his home.

Defense attorney Doug Nelson address the jury during his client, Jason Benjamin’s trial Wednesday in Twin Falls. | Drew Nash, Times-News

The teenager said she visited Benjamin’s apartment several times in October to “make out,” cuddle, and watch movies. During one of the visits, they had sex, she said. The teenager also told police she sent Benjamin unsolicited photos of herself in her underwear over Facebook Messenger.

Benjamin confirmed the girl’s story in a videotaped police interview that was shown during the trial. He said he knew having sex with a minor was wrong, but he was afraid she would tell people about their relationship if he said no to her.

The teenager ended the relationship over Facebook Messenger shortly after the encounter, both she and Benjamin said.

The trial included testimony from Van Vooren and the teenager’s mother, who confirmed her daughter was a student at Canyon Ridge High School in December but said the girl had not returned to school since winter break and did not graduate with her class. Neither Benjamin nor the teenager testified.

As an adult, Benjamin could and should have stopped the relationship before it escalated into sexual contact, deputy prosecutor Suzanne Ehlers argued.

There was “no doubt” the teenager was a “willing participant” in the sexual encounter, Ehlers told the jury. But she “was not the only willing participant on this defendant’s couch.”

Defense attorney Doug Nelson did not dispute that Benjamin had sex with the girl, but urged jurors to use their “life experiences” and “common sense” in deciding the verdict.

“I know that when this case is over, you guys are going to go back there and do the right thing, have the courage to do the correct thing,” Nelson said.

In response, Ehlers reminded members of the jury that they had been instructed by the court during jury instruction not to let sympathy influence their decision.

“You’ve got to follow the law, regardless of what your personal thought of it is,” she said.

Prosecutor Suzanne Ehlers addresses the jury while Judge Benjamin Cluff looks on during opening statements for Jason Benjamin’s trial Wednesday in Twin Falls.| Drew Nash, Times-News

The foreman of the jury, who identified himself only as “Jason,” told the Times-News after the trial that he and other jurors did not feel the case met the “true definition of rape,” as Benjamin did not physically force himself on the girl.

“We just felt that we couldn’t throw this guy’s life away, when in our definition she wasn’t raped,” Jason said. “He made a mistake, but we don’t feel that he’s a predator and he’s going to be out there raping girls.”

Initially, two members of the jury had been leaning toward a guilty verdict, Jason said. He said all of the jurors agreed to declare Benjamin not guilty after re-watching the video of Benjamin’s police interview, in which he claimed he was afraid to turn down the teenager’s advances.

“Rape is such an ugly word,” the foreman said. “We just could not slap him with the label of rapist when even she said it was consensual and she pursued him.”

If the foreman’s comments accurately reflected the jury’s reasons for declaring Benjamin not guilty, jurors “completely disregarded their duty,” Loebs said.

“Juries are never supposed to decide whether the law is wise or unwise,” Loebs said. “They are to decide whether the facts prove that the law was violated.”

This article was originally published by the Times-News. It is used here with permission. Subscribe to the Times-News here.

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