In a trial that tests the definition of deviant behavior, the lawyer for a former Newport Beach youth recreational leader accused of molesting several preteen boys hopes to convince a jury that his client's behavior is not criminal, just strange.
Trenton Veches is charged with 25 felony counts of lewd acts with minors. Almost all the charges stem from incidents in which the 32-year-old after-school program supervisor sucked the toes of two dozen boys ages 8 to 11.
Veches videotaped many of the encounters and has admitted to the acts. But he has pleaded not guilty, his lawyer says, because the conduct was not sexual and therefore not illegal.
"This is a sex crime without sex," said lawyer John Dolan outside court. "It's weird, it's quirky, and in hindsight it's inappropriate, but it's not criminal, because it completely lacks in the element of sexual gratification."
During the trial, which has entered its second week in a Santa Ana courtroom, Dolan has compared his client's oral fixation to the loving nibbles of a parent.
Although he has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of possessing child pornography and acknowledges the toe incidents, Veches does dispute allegations in three of the 25 counts that he touched boys on the buttocks.
According to the testimony of several alleged victims, Veches didn't fondle their sexual organs or hurt them. Former co-workers have also testified that Veches was popular with children and was often mobbed after arriving at one of several recreation centers.
But prosecutors portray Veches, who was arrested in April 2002, as a predatory child molester who abused his position and violated the children's trust. Deputy Dist. Atty. Sheila Hanson has argued that by videotaping the encounters and collecting child pornography, Veches has shown that his interest in the boys was indeed sexual.
Dolan maintains there is no connection between the child pornography and the behavior with boys, however bizarre. His client's methodically categorized collection of computer files and photographs of young boys in sexually explicit poses was kept far from his workplace, he said.
Former co-workers testified Wednesday that they never saw pornographic material in Veches' office or car. They added that they never noticed Veches sexually aroused around the children.
Still, the defense has a hard sell, experts said. Denying that sexual desire lies behind an alleged lewd act with a minor is a common defense, Newport detective John Hougan said.
And Veches may have been satisfying a sexual urge without realizing it, said Elyn Saks, a USC professor of law and behavioral sciences. "It's not uncommon for people to have foot fetishes and be getting sexual pleasure out of it and not know it," she said. "People can be sexually aroused without necessarily showing physiological signs of it. It can be emotional."
A psychiatric examination could help define the motivation behind the toe-sucking, Saks said. But the prosecution hasn't asked for such a test -- although the defense says it is willing to have their client submit to one -- which surprises Saks. "The general question here is 'If you have sexual intent and don't realize it ... should you be liable?' "
If convicted, Veches faces life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years. Lawyers in the case expect to deliver final arguments today.