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Former Compton Coach Acquitted of Sex Charges

Court: Ex-Dominguez High School basketball mentor Russell Otis faced charges that he molested one of his players.

April 24, 2001|DALONDO MOULTRIE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russell Otis, a nationally known Compton high school basketball coach, was acquitted Monday of charges that he sexually molested one of his players last fall.

As the Superior Court jury read the not-guilty verdicts on four charges, including oral copulation and sodomy, Otis wiped tears from his eyes and hugged his lawyer, Leonard B. Levine.

Several Otis relatives applauded in the courtroom.

After Judge Steven Suzukawa dismissed the jury, Otis stood up, walked toward his family and hugged his older brother, Donald. The two men cried together as other family members joined them.

Outside the courtroom, several jurors said the prosecution failed to prove that the 17-year-old youth who made the allegations was molested.

"We all had reasonable doubt," said the jury forewoman, who asked to be identified only as Joni.

Russell Otis was charged with one count each of molestation or annoying a child under 18, oral copulation with a child under 18, sodomy with a child under 18 and forcible sodomy. He faced up to nine years and eight months in prison if convicted.

"Words can't even describe how I feel," Otis, 38, said Monday night. "My life was turned upside down for six whole months. I'm elated."

Otis said he could not help feeling some bitterness about what he has gone through since he was arrested in November.

"I know you have to forgive, but I will never forget," he said.

Otis began coaching basketball at Dominguez High School in 1987 and built a powerhouse program. He received a lucrative Nike contract, produced top recruits for big-name colleges and won four state championships.

He was fired as coach and physical education instructor in February for what authorities said was his failure over 14 years of teaching to obtain permanent credentials.

Otis said Monday he was unsure about what he would do next. "I just got to wait and see." he said. "I'm going to always have some options. I got God in my corner, so I'm always going to have options."

At the trial, which lasted more than two weeks, the prosecution described Otis as a sexual predator who betrayed his players' trust, respect and confidence.

The 17-year-old boy who accused Otis of molesting him had testified that the coach groped him, performed oral sex on him and sodomized him.

The boy, who was identified in court as John Doe because he is a minor, tearfully testified that Otis, who was his coach at Dominguez High, molested him while they were at the coach's Carson home last fall.

Another former player, Ernest Yearby, 27, also testified that Otis performed oral sex on him seven or eight times and fondled him during the year he played basketball for Dominguez. Yearby said he was playing basketball at a park when he met the coach in the summer of 1988.

But Levine proclaimed Otis' innocence.

Levine said Yearby was an opportunist who read a news report and decided he could capitalize on the coach's trouble. The defense lawyer said Yearby fabricated his story as part of a plot to get money from Otis.

After the acquittal, Levine said the defense proved that the alleged acts could not have occurred.

"It just confirmed what we believed all along: Russell Otis was innocent."

Levine said that as the verdicts were read, Otis hugged him and said softly: "Thank you very much. God bless you and God bless those 12 jurors."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Martinez said she was disappointed with the verdicts.

"The [17-year-old boy's] family is very disappointed, hurt, sad. They're angry," Martinez said. "They're concerned about other victims in the future."

The youth's family was not in court and could not be reached late Monday.

One of the jurors, who asked to be identified only as Yvette, said jurors believed some testimony by the 17-year-old boy, but they did not believe the other prosecution witnesses.

"I personally didn't think he was guilty of sodomy, didn't think he was guilty of oral copulation," Joni said of Otis. "They didn't prove the molestation."

Another juror, who declined to give her name, said she did not believe Yearby's testimony.

Otis' family gathered to celebrate at his mother's home in Paramount.

"It's sad because anybody could be falsely accused and could be dragged through that. . . . I'm proud of him," said Donald Otis, 40. "If I had my way, I'd certainly encourage him to try to sue everyone who got up there on the stand. It's slander. I hope that he actually sues every single one of them."

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