Ato Modibo Stephens, former athletics coach, was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for convincing a 14-year-old girl on his track team to send him topless photographs of herself.
Stephens, 38, was found guilty of using an information and communication technology (ICT) network to annoy, harass or abuse, but not guilty of indecent assault or gross indecency involving the teenage girl, after a judge-alone trial.
Justice Michael Wood said he did not for a moment find that the girl was a liar, but that was not the test. He had to be sure of the defendant’s guilt and there was “just enough doubt for me to be not sure.”
He said it was perhaps with a degree of reluctance that he found Stephens not guilty of the other charges against him.
Justice Wood pointed out that the maximum sentence for using an ICT network to abuse is two years. He considered that Stephens’s offending had been at the top end of such offending, but said he was bearing in mind that Stephens had pleaded not guilty only on legal advice.
He had given his ruling earlier in the week that WhatsApp messages sent by Stephens to the girl were an offense: “It’s hard to imagine how they could not be abusive,” he said. Stephens had asked the girl to send him photos to help him “relax,” the court heard. The requests had become more explicit, first asking for pictures in her underwear, and then topless, then with a shifting of her underwear to show more skin. “Your behavior was absolutely disgraceful,” the judge told Stephens. He said some of the photos were provocative posing, as encouraged by Stephens.
The defense, conducted by lead counsel Paul Keleher and instructing counsel Amelia Fosuhene, contended that Stephens never touched the girl or exposed himself – that the messages between them were more like “sexting.” The judge agreed that Stephens was getting sexual pleasure from the messages and pictures.
Justice Wood said the girl had been a credible witness, but there were some troubling aspects. For example, she had said she complied with requests for pictures because the coach had told her if she did not, she would get kicked off the team. But there were no messages recovered from their phones to indicate any such threat or reference to being dropped from the team.
Some messages had indicated a caring relationship, the judge noted.
The defense had also queried whether there was any opportunity for the indecent acts to have taken place in Stephens’s vehicle, as the girl described. Justice Wood referred to a hearsay statement from one athlete and testimony in court from two others about the way in which athletes would be dropped off by Stephens after practice. They indicated that the girl had been dropped off before they were. One young person said there was not a single practice when the girl would have been dropped off after he was.
Justice Wood said he found it extraordinary that the police officer investigating the matter made no effort to speak to the athletes about the girl being in the vehicle after police received the complaint from the girl’s mother. The officer did not flag this factor for another officer when he was transferred. As a result, the young people were not spoken to until the trial, which was not satisfactory, the judge said.
Justice Wood also suggested that it would have been better for the officer to interview the girl in the presence of a social worker instead of her mother.
In passing the sentence of 18 months, he noted that Stephens had already spent about 12 months in custody (some time in Florida awaiting extradition, and here in Cayman awaiting trial). Sixty percent of 18 months is some 11-plus months, he noted. He said he was ordering Stephens’s deportation when the sentence is completed.
Stephens in his evidence told the court he was born in Trinidad and Tobago and he was a citizen of the United States. He said he started coaching in Cayman in 2010.