Pe Ell Coach’s Rape, Sexual Misconduct Convictions Overturned

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

The state Court of Appeals overturned a Pe Ell man’s 2012 convictions for third-degree rape and sexual misconduct in a decision released Tuesday, citing prosecutorial misconduct that prejudiced a jury.

“We hold that the prosecutor committed misconduct by introducing and arguing facts not in evidence about sexual grooming and that this misconduct was prejudicial, flagrant and ill intentioned …” the court’s decision reads. “We further hold that this error resulted in actual and substantial prejudice.”

Todd D. Phelps, a former Pe Ell fastpitch coach, was found guilty of the crimes in 2012 in Lewis County Superior Court. A jury also concluded that the rape occurred with aggravating factors including abuse of trust and the fact that the victim, who was 16, was particularly vulnerable.

The Court of Appeals previously upheld the conviction in a 2014 decision.

According to the Court of Appeals’ decision this week, the 16-year-old victim was on a fastpitch team coached by Phelps. She reportedly traveled with Phelps and his family to out-of-town games and began to think of him as a father figure.

In 2011, she began playing softball on the high school team, which Phelps helped coach. Phelps and the girl reportedly had a relationship in which he encouraged her to confide in him about issues including depression.

That year, the girl reported having “inappropriate sexual contact” with Phelps, which she reported to at least one adult.

Phelps and the teen reportedly continued to have a close relationship, and Phelps reportedly admitted to kissing her on the forehead and nose. They reportedly had “daily electronic contact,” according to court documents.

In April, 2011, the Pe Ell school superintendent planned to recommend a suspension or termination for Phelps, who said the situation was being blown out of proportion, according to court documents.

Phelps was allowed to continue coaching on the condition that he spend no time alone with students or text them.

However, he reportedly continued to text the teen and told her “he had never loved anyone as much as he loved her,” according to court documents, and touched her in a sexual way.

Phelps resigned after the continued contact was discovered, however, the two reportedly continued to meet.

The girl accused Phelps of forcing her to have sex with him that summer, and Phelps was later charged.

According to the Court of Appeals decision, prosecutors first introduced the concept of sexual grooming during jury selection, with no objection from defense. During the course of a conversation with potential jurors, the prosecutor outlined sexual grooming as gaining the trust of a child before eventually isolating them from family and friends.

While the prosecution’s witnesses testified within that framework, and the closing statement relied strongly on the argument that Phelps spent several months grooming the teen before the alleged rape, the state did not present expert testimony about the sexual grooming process, according to the appeals court’s ruling.

Defense counsel did not object to that argument, and instead argued that Phelps could not have committed the crimes “because he was not there,” according to the appeals court’s ruling, or that the intercourse was consensual.

Phelps argued in his petition to the Court of Appeals that the prosecutor committed misconduct by relying on the grooming argument without any “evidentiary support.”

The appeals court agreed with Phelps’ argument and reversed his conviction.

The case has not been dismissed, and could come back for another trial in Lewis County Superior Court, said deputy prosecutor Sara Beigh, who handles appeals for the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office.

The Prosecutor’s Office could also appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do next,” she said, saying the ultimate decision rests with Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer.