Civil jury rules for Camden Military Academy

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 2, 2013 

Camden Military Academy coat of arms

CAMDEN MILITARY ACADEMY

— A federal civil jury took 1 ½ hours Tuesday evening to find in favor of Camden Military Academy and its top leaders in a civil trial over whether the school was negligent in an alleged 2008 rape case involving a cadet.

“The Lord was with us, and we’re just so glad,” said Camden Headmaster Col. Eric Boland, 55, choking up with emotion as he walked out of the Matthew Perry federal courthouse in Columbia as night fell. He one of the three named school administration defendants in the case.

The plaintiff in the case, now 18, was seeking up to $7 million in punitive damages, plaintiff’s lawyer Marguerite Willis told the jury in her closing arguments Tuesday afternoon.

The plaintiff had accused one former cadet of raping him, another of sodomy and also charged that he was repeatedly bullied and that school officials had failed to stop the bullying. At the time of the allegations, the plaintiff was 13, weighed about 120 pounds and lived in a dormitory with larger, older boys.

Willis told the jury it should find Camden Military Academy and three top officials responsible for not cracking down on a “climate of violence” at the school, she said.

“You are here to stop what is going on,” she said. “Unless you punish these people, you will never know whether this will happen to another child.”

In his closing argument, defense attorney Duke Highfield assailed Willis’ version of events, reminding the jury that Willis’ client had changed his stories about the alleged rape and other alleged traumatic incidents numerous times before testifying at trial.

The plaintiff is “an admitted liar” whose allegations about suffering sexual trauma at the hands of two other cadets only came into focus as he got closer to filing a lawsuit against the school and thought of winning a lot of money, Highfield said.

Highfield also told the jury that the three school officials who are defendants in the suit are exceptional people who have spent years developing a safe and nourishing environment at the 55-year-old school.

“Do you think any of these educators would allow this to go on if they knew about it?” Highfield asked the jury, speaking of Boland, commandant of cadets Lt. Col. Pat Armstrong, and Command Sgt. Maj. Vertis Wilder. Armstrong and Wilder were the other named defendants in the lawsuit.

Highfield saved his most slashing attack for a key plaintiff’s expert witness, Dr. James Ballenger, who had earlier in the trial testified that the plaintiff’s different versions of events were due to post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the rape.

Ballenger, who earned $125,000 for examining the cadet, basically sells his testimony to whoever pays him, Highfield said.

“He sings whatever you want – like a jukebox,” Highfield scoffed.

That brought a rejoinder from Willis, who told the jury that Ballenger – who she said was a nationally prominent PTSD expert – had also been hired as an expert witness at times by Highfield’s law firm.

Willis had used Ballenger to explain to the jury that people who suffer traumatic events such as rape often have memory impairments of the event.

Judge Joe Anderson had dinner brought into the courthouse for the jury as it began deliberating early Thursday evening.

Over four weeks of trial, there were dozens of witnesses and numerous exhibits presented to the federal jury, composed of eight men and two women.

Highfield and Willis engaged in pitched legal battles over what evidence should be admitted throughout the trial, and they interrupted each other several times during closing arguments to make objections Tuesday.

The State does not generally identify victims of alleged sexual assaults.

After the jury’s verdict, Highfield told The State newspaper in an interview, “It was a hard-fought case, a serious case, and we always believed in Camden Military Academy.”

Willis said, “The issues of bullying and violence in schools are important ones, and Nexsen Pruet (Willis’s Columbia firm) is proud to have represented our client in this battle. We believed in him, and continue to believe.”

Cam Walters, head of Camden Military Academy’s board of trustees, said, “We’ve got a fine school, and a fine tradition, and we’re happy to continue.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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