Coach Not Indicted: Dallas Morning News

Carroll coach who had sex with student won’t go to trial

Carroll ISD: Move not to indict highlights ’03 law’s varying results

12:00 AM CDT on Friday, June 22, 2007
By JEFF MOSIER / The Dallas Morning News

A Carroll High School swimming coach who admitted having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student won’t go to trial.

A Tarrant County grand jury declined Thursday to indict Byron Eugene Coyle, 26, who was arrested last month on suspicion of having an improper sexual relationship with a student. A 2003 state law criminalized such relationships between students and teachers, even if the teen is 17 or older – the age of consent in Texas.

However, this is the second time since last fall that a local school employee has been charged under the law and then cleared by a grand jury. In September, a Denton County grand jury declined to indict Amy McElhenney, a former teacher at Hebron High School in Carrollton and past Miss Texas contestant accused of having sex with an 18-year-old student.

“I don’t think the grand jury is sanctioning these types of relationships,” said David Finn, Mr. Coyle’s attorney. “A grand jury can consider the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law. I think they acted in the interest of justice.”

Mr. Coyle could have faced a prison sentence of up to 20 years if the case had gone to trial.

David Montague, a spokesman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, declined to comment on the case. Sherri Wagner, an assistant district attorney, said that she didn’t see any trends related to this law and that each case is decided on its own merit.

Shannon Edmonds, a lawyer for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said he’s spoken to prosecutors statewide about how the law works in practice and could not find a consensus.

Some counties have successfully prosecuted several cases under the 2003 law without much trouble, he said, while others have struggled to get similar cases past a grand jury.

Comparing cases

Maureen Shelton, a prosecutor in Wichita County, said her office has prosecuted three or four improper-relationship cases involving older teens. In most cases, the school employee was a woman and typically received deferred adjudication, which means the conviction could be cleared from the person’s record.

Ms. Shelton said the effectiveness of each prosecution stems from the case’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the makeup of the grand jury.

“There are some grand juries that want to indict everything, and others are more liberal,” she said.

Mr. Edmonds said that a couple of prosecutors he contacted had such cases rejected by a jury or grand jury despite strong evidence of guilt.

“The prosecutors thought this was due to the fact that the law criminalizes what is essentially a consensual sex act,” he said.

Mr. Edmonds said that some juries might have been concerned about the potentially long prison sentence and that others took into account a perceived unfairness in the law.

The legislation applies only to students and employees at the same school. That means a teacher could legally have sex with a 17-year-old from a neighboring school, but it would be a felony to have the same relationship with a 17-year-old from his or her campus.

The 2003 law was passed to close what was perceived to be a loophole in existing statutes. Teachers or other school personnel could be prosecuted for a supposedly consensual sexual relationship with a student who was 16 or younger. But once that student turned 17, there was nothing law enforcement officials could do.

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, sponsored the legislation to protect students against these inappropriate – but then legal – relationships. However, she said previously that she never intended for it to apply to 18-year-old students or carry such harsh penalties.

Those changes were made with amendments to the bill.

Ms. Giddings was traveling Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Edmonds said he surveyed Texas prosecutors on behalf of the lawmaker, who was researching whether to loosen some of the restrictions.

Mr. Edmonds said that some district attorneys favored easing the restrictions to make sexual relationships between older teens and school staff easier to prosecute. Others – usually those who had successfully prosecuted these cases – wanted to keep the same restrictions in place.

Tighter restrictions

Mr. Finn, the Carroll coach’s attorney, said the law is now tougher than before. An addition to the law passed this year outlaws sexual e-mails or text messages between school staff and older students.

In Mr. Coyle’s case, police found cellphone text messages in which he and the student discuss their sexual relationship, according to the arrest warrant affidavit. Some of the messages indicated that the teen was worried that she was pregnant by “Byron.”

Mr. Finn said that his client was unaware of the new law outlawing these relationships and that he passed a polygraph test on that point. He said there is a difference between knowing an action is inappropriate and knowing it could land you in prison for up to 20 years.

“I’m not sure that everyone understands that,” Mr. Finn said. “We all need to do better about getting the word out.”

He pointed to a letter from Carroll Superintendent David Faltys sent to the “Dragon Family” about Mr. Coyle’s case. “We will evaluate existing and additional training opportunities to ensure that students and staff alike understand the importance of keeping the student-teacher relationship professional,” Dr. Faltys said in the letter.

Mr. Finn said that he doesn’t blame Carroll ISD for his client’s situation but that the district needs to work harder to ensure its employees understand that the crime is serious.

Carroll ISD officials were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Mr. Finn said his client plans to move out of state because of the extensive media coverage of the case. He said there is no celebration this week, only an effort to start a new life.

“There’s no winner is a situation like this,” Mr. Finn said. “Reputations are damaged. Byron feels for the complainant and her family. Hopefully, everyone will be able to rebuild their lives and reputations and move on.”

David Finn

Phone Numbers

Office: (214) 538-6629

Office Location

4015 Main Street, Suite 100
Dallas, TX 75226
Phone: (214) 538-6629
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