Cristina Preston’s new defense attorney tried to cast doubt on the former middle school teacher’s child molestation conviction Wednesday during a daylong Muscogee Superior Court hearing.
Preston, 46, who last year was convicted on multiple counts stemming from a months-long affair with a student, is seeking a new trial before Judge Gil McBride.
Her new attorney is former prosecutor Mark Post, who Wednesday questioned whether the boy, then 14, told authorities the truth about having sex with Preston on two particular occasions.
One was on Jan. 30, 2012, when at 12:42 a.m. Muscogee sheriff’s deputies found the boy with Preston in her black Ford Expedition, parked along a tree line in Columbus’ Cooper Creek Park. The encounter led to the investigation that resulted in Preston’s resignation and arrest.
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The boy told investigators that after buying food at Krystal, Preston took him to the park, pulled down his jeans in the back seat and got on top of him as they had sexual intercourse.
Post pointed out that a detective testifying during Preston’s June 2013 trial said police collected no semen or other evidence from the seat because the entire interior of the vehicle had a film of dust, dirt or mud, which would have impeded such evidence collection.
Post argued that if Preston and the boy had sex as the teen said, then the dirt on the seat should have been disturbed by their movements.
Post also called to the stand Preston’s gynecologist, who said he examined Preston Jan. 26, 2012, because she complained of pain on the left side of her pelvis.
She was to have an ultrasound Feb. 2, 2012, but did not have it until the following March 20, he said. The results showed a large mass that turned out to be a tumor on her left ovary, the physician said.
“I would say it would be very uncomfortable to have intercourse at that time,” he said of Preston’s condition.
But it would not be impossible, the doctor acknowledged under cross-examination by Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly. Post also hammered on interviews police conducted with the teenager while his father and stepmother were present. The boy was under so much pressure that he could have lied to escape the browbeating, Post claimed.
He contended attorney Clark Adams, who represented Preston during her trial, should have had an expert witness review recordings of the questioning to determine whether the boy was coerced. Adams also should have played the entire interviews for jurors, and not just excerpts, Post said.
Summoned to the stand Wednesday, Adams said he played the excerpts he wanted the jury to hear, and chose portions that he thought proved the teen had been intimidated.
At times all four adults were questioning the boy, Post said, and initially the teen maintained nothing inappropriate occurred between him and Preston, but the pressure continued.
“These interview techniques are highly inappropriate,” Post said. “I don’t subscribe any bad motives to them, but the interview techniques were highly inappropriate and leading for a child of that age. ... They were not going to leave him alone until he told them what they wanted to hear.”
Kelly said those questioning the boy had ample reason to be suspicious:
“The elephant in the room during the trial and the elephant in the room now is that Mrs. Preston was caught in Cooper Creek Park at 12:42 a.m., backed up 75 yards down a dirt road, all of her lights off, with an eighth-grade student. There is not an explanation for that. And that is why she is in prison.”
Post argued Preston did have reasons to become emotionally dependent on the boy: She was under tremendous stress at the time, and the jury at her trial should have heard evidence of that.
“The jury should have known she had marital issues; she was about to get fired; she was on anti-depressants; she had financial issues; and she had been told she could not be seen in public with that child,” Post said, the latter referring to an instance when a coworker saw Preston with the boy in a store, and the teacher later was told not to socialize with the student.
“All that leads to her having some bad judgment,” Post added. “Nobody will argue it was exceptionally bad judgment to be parked there with that child. You can’t argue that. What we are arguing is she did not have sex with that child.”
Had Preston’s other troubles been introduced as evidence, it would have strengthened the case against her, Kelly countered: It would have helped explain why a teacher was having sex with an eighth-grader.
“It would open a big door for me to argue, and I certainly would have taken advantage of that,” he said. “They bring all this in, it opens the door for me to argue she is looking to escape.”
Post said the doubt that Preston got a fair trial is enough to grant her a new one: “We are not asking you to let her go,” he told McBride. “We are asking for another trial to have another shot.”
Kelly countered that the jury convicted Preston because the evidence proved her guilt, and nothing her trial attorney did, or didn’t do, could change that.
“The facts weren’t on his side,” Kelly said of Adams. “He did what he could. He was dealt a bad hand.”
Of Preston, he added: “The facts were against her because she’s guilty. Yelling louder won’t make any difference.”
McBride’s decision is expected in a few weeks.
Meanwhile Preston continues serving a 25-year prison sentence on convictions for aggravated child molestation, child molestation, statutory rape and sexual assault on a person in custody.