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Ex-coach at Compton's Dominguez High convicted of misdemeanor child molesting

The jury deadlocks on a felony charge against basketball coach Russell Otis: meeting a minor for lewd purposes. He is acquitted of felony theft and forgery.

November 04, 2009|Lance Pugmire

Russell Otis, who directed Dominguez High School in Compton to five state boys' basketball championships, was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor child molesting, a crime that, withstanding appeals, would bar him from coaching or teaching minors.

The 47-year-old Otis, sitting stern-faced as the verdicts were read, was acquitted of committing felony theft and forgery by depositing a $15,000 Nike check written to the Compton Unified School District into his personal bank account.

After 11 days of deliberations, the Los Angeles County Superior Court jury in Compton deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of conviction on a felony charge of meeting a minor for lewd purposes.

The district attorney's office is weighing whether it will retry Otis on that charge.

Otis faced up to 10 years in prison if he had been convicted on all charges. The maximum sentence for the misdemeanor conviction is a year in County Jail, but attorneys on both sides said Otis is expected to receive probation rather than jail time.

The former coach declined to comment.

His defense attorney, Leonard Levine, said he will appeal the misdemeanor conviction.

"Before this case is over, we believe Mr. Otis will be totally exonerated," Levine said. "We strongly believe in his innocence."

The child molesting conviction was based on hundreds of text messages Otis exchanged on the night of Aug. 30, 2008, with a then-16-year-old member of Dominguez's 2008 Southern Section championship team. The law is designed to protect minors from unwanted communication of a sexual nature from an adult, authorities said.

"The number of text messages, and the times they were sent, until 2 to 3 a.m., that was clearly annoying the kid and it was unreasonable behavior in a coach-student relationship," said a male juror who did not give his name. "That was just wrong."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Angela Brunson claimed a courtroom "victory" because the misdemeanor conviction means Otis "will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. So he will no longer be allowed to prey on any more students and athletes."

In 2001, a Compton jury acquitted Otis of sexually assaulting one of his players. He was reinstated after that case and guided the team for six seasons before the Compton school district fired him earlier this year.

The player from the 2008 team testified during the trial that Otis texted him frequently to set up an after-midnight meeting outside the player's home. Phone records of those text messages were presented at trial, but the contents of the messages were lost or erased, the boy testified.

The boy testified that Otis came to his home and offered him $1,500 if he would allow the coach to sexually arouse him.

Although the jury foreman said the majority of jurors believed the boy's account, two jurors argued that there was insufficient evidence to place Otis at the boy's home that night and convict him of the felony. Otis' son testified that he never heard his father leave their Carson home that evening. The foreman said the jurors' extended debate at times became "heated."

"The prosecution didn't give us enough, leaving us to try to put together a jigsaw puzzle without all the little pieces," said a woman who voted for acquittal but declined to be identified.

"The two who wouldn't vote guilty said, 'There's no smoking gun,' " said the foreman, who identified himself only as a retiree and graduate of Compton High School.

Regarding the theft and forgery acquittals, jurors said they thought it was plausible that Otis had secured authorization from Dominguez's principal at the time to deposit the money into his account.

Although prosecutors asked Judge Allen Webster to jail Otis pending sentencing, he walked out of court free on bail and is due back Dec. 1 for a hearing at which prosecutors will announce their retrial decision. A sentencing date has not been set.

Otis remains under investigation by the Compton School Police over whether he broke the law by collecting $5,100 in reimbursement after submitting travel receipts bearing the letterhead of his former landlord. The attorney for the company's owner has told The Times that the company is not involved in the travel business and did not generate the invoices.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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