LARGO — In an effort to save himself from a conviction on multiple sex crimes, former Pasco elementary school teacher Michael Lander not only testified in his own defense on Friday, he also appeared before the jury in his boxer shorts.
Nonetheless, jurors found him guilty of two counts of sexual battery and two counts of lewd or lascivious behavior for manipulating one of his students into sex acts when she was 12 and 13.
The victim, now 18, testified during the trial that Lander started favoring her with nice notes, romantic looks and kisses. Eventually he persuaded her mother to sign a custody agreement allowing her to move in with his family, ostensibly so he could tutor her. Eventually, she said, he told her he loved her and wanted to have a baby with her. He also repeatedly asked for oral sex and had intercourse with her on her 13th birthday.
The jury reached a verdict after 90 minutes of deliberations. Lander's wife, the victim and the victim's mother cried in court as the verdict was read.
Lander, 40, said nothing and showed no emotion. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday and faces up to life in prison.
Apparently the spectacle of seeing Lander stand in the courtroom in his boxer shorts — along with dress shirt, tie and stocking feet — did little to convince the all-female jury that Lander was innocent. The point of the exercise was to display burn scars on Lander's legs, which the victim did not mention during testimony.
Lander's decision to testify presented him with a problem. Prosecutors had a recorded phone call between Lander and his wife in which he discussed the sex allegations and appeared to admit wrongdoing.
So when Lander testified on Friday, he had to explain why he seemed to admit guilt during the phone call to his wife.
For example, she said in the recorded call: "I want to know right now, yes or no. And that's all you have to say."
Lander responded: "Yes. Once."
Friday's explanation: Lander testified that he did not mean he had sex with the girl. He just meant there was one time in which something happened between them that made him uncomfortable. That was the time the girl reached down and rubbed his belly and, he explained, "I didn't feel it was appropriate at all."
Lander's attorney, Andres Sanchez, also asked him what he had meant in the call when he acknowledged being "extremely unfair to her."
"To who?" Lander said, posing a question about his own words. He later said he didn't remember the statement.
Also, Sanchez said, Lander had previously told his stepdaughter he loved the girl he was later accused of molesting.
Friday's explanation: "I loved all my students."
These answers were not enough for Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Menendez-Kotch, who said Lander's version of events would even boggle the minds of conspiracy theorists.
She pointed out that during the phone call in which his wife graphically accused him of having intercourse with an adolescent girl, he never protested that it wasn't what he meant.
Lander met the girl when she joined his fifth-grade class at Schrader Elementary. He and his wife lived in Pinellas County.
There was an unusual moment Friday when Sanchez approached Judge Keith Meyer for a conversation that could not be heard in the courtroom. Afterward Meyer said: "So, summing it up, you want your client to take his pants off?"
Sanchez explained the burn scars and said Lander had boxers under his pants.
"The court is well acquainted with boxer shorts," Meyer said, but instructed Sanchez to guard against any "garment malfunction" with the underwear.
When Meyer asked prosecutors for input, Menendez-Kotch said, "I don't think we have a legal basis to object."