TAMPA — A jury Wednesday found a former elementary school teacher from Riverview guilty of molesting a student, deciding that award-winning educator Ethel Anderson lured a 12-year-old boy into a tortured sexual affair conducted at her home during tutoring sessions.
After deliberating for about two hours, jurors found Anderson, 31, guilty on nine sex-crime charges, including lewd and lascivious battery and lewd and lascivious molestation. All nine counts carry prison sentences of up to 15 years, meaning that Anderson, mother of a 6-year-old daughter, could potentially spend decades behind bars.
Anderson's three-day trial bore the stamp of the digital age, as prosecutors presented more than 230 pages of text messages between her and the victim. Along with a secretly taped confession to the victim's mother, those texts — by turns steamy, needy and manipulative — formed a compelling and finally inescapable body of evidence.
"I just got justice for my child," the victim's mother said after the verdict was delivered. "That's all I was looking for."
Her son, Anderson's victim, was also present in the courtroom, and embraced prosecutors after the verdict was announced. He turned 14 on Tuesday, the same day he testified against his former teacher. The Tampa Bay Times is not identifying him because of the nature of the offenses.
Anderson's attorney, William Knight of Tampa, declined to comment in detail on the verdict. "I'm disappointed," he said. "Very much so."
Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters also declined to comment because Anderson has not yet been sentenced. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe is scheduled to sentence her on Nov. 5.
The verdict came the morning after a dramatic and possibly decisive twist in the trial late Tuesday, when Anderson surprised the court by testifying in her own defense as a guilty verdict looked increasingly likely.
The tactic appeared to backfire, as she claimed that reams of sexual text messages she sent her victim were an instructional technique "to get his attention for the purpose of his education." She claimed that the texts were "fantasy" and that she confessed to performing oral sex on the victim only because his mother was pressuring her to admit to something.
The assertions led to a ruthless cross-examination by Peters, who derisively called Anderson's teaching methods "sexual therapy," a coinage Anderson herself began repeating after a while. In her closing argument Wednesday, Peters called Anderson's attempt to explain herself "remarkable" and "amazing" in its audacity.
"Everything she told you defies every fiber of logic and common sense," Peters said.
Knight, in his closing argument, noted that no DNA evidence of sexual contact between Anderson and her student had been presented.
Anderson's text messages graphically described her lusts and insecurities about her body to a boy who sometimes assumed the name of a favorite SpongeBob SquarePants character, Dirty Dan. She admitted the texts were inappropriate, but "Ethel Anderson is not on trial here for those text messages," Knight said.
Anderson was employed at Mango Elementary School but resigned last December, according to Hillsborough County schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty. She had been suspended without pay after her arrest in March 2012. In 2011, she had been named the school's diversity educator of the year.
After delivering their verdict, jurors left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. Steven Marshall, a 22-year-old alternate juror from Tampa who sat through the trial but did not help decide the case, said he would have found Anderson guilty on all counts, in part because of her unconvincing testimony.
"At first it was really shocking that she took the stand at all," Marshall said. "What she was saying just didn't add up to me."
He added, "It looked really sketchy, with the sexual therapy."
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.