Ex-Columbus High teacher Cypert files petition to toss guilty plea

James Cypert — convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for having sex with an 18-year-old student — wants his guilty plea tossed out.

The former Columbus High English teacher’s argument is that his attorney at the time didn’t tell him that consent of the student was a defense. Cypert says in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus that it’s undisputed that all sexual conduct was consensual.

That led Cypert to ask a judge to grant him relief. According to his attorney, William Mason, that means Cypert’s guilty plea should be set aside. That would put the case back at pre-trail status, and it couldn’t be prosecuted, Mason said.

The defense attorney plans to present his arguments to a judge in an August hearing.

Cypert was indicted in September 2007 on three charges of sexual assault against a person in custody. The charges stemmed from accusations that he had a sexual relationship with a student from March to May 2005. Police said the sex was consensual and the former student was 18 years old and a senior at the time. The age of sexual consent is 16 in Georgia.

In December 2007, Cypert pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault against a person in custody. He was sentenced to a year in prison, followed by five years’ probation. As part of the sentence, Cypert had to forfeit his teaching certificate and register as a sex offender.

Mason said that the June 2009 state Supreme Court decision of Chase v. State states that consent is a defense in cases of sexual assault against someone in custody, such as a teacher/student relationship.

The fact that the high court’s decision came after Cypert’s plea doesn’t matter, Mason said.

“Chase didn’t change what the law was,” he added. “Chase said: the law clearly states that consent is a defense. It was a defense when Cypert pled guilty. It was not a crime to have consensual sex with a student when Cypert pled guilty.”

Assistant City Attorney Jaimie DeLoach responded to Cypert’s petition for a writ in May, asking that a judge dismiss it. In addition, she denies that defense attorney Stephen Hyles, now a U.S. Magistrate, failed to tell Cypert that consent was a defense and disputes that all sexual contact between Cypert and the student was consensual.

“The trial court stated at the guilty plea hearing that the sexual contact was ‘not forced’ but also stated that the ‘consent may not have been totally valid.’ The witness stated that she ‘was unstable,’” DeLoach writes.

Mason said he and his client don’t believe that Hyles advised Cypert that consent was a defense.

Former Senior Assistant District Attorney Stacey Jackson, now a private attorney with Hyles’ old firm, told Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters at the guilty plea hearing that letters and e-mails were exchanged between Cypert and the student. Cypert made promises, saying he would leave his wife, Jackson said.

The student said she had been manipulated by someone much older and wiser than her.

The law

Defense attorney Frank Martin said Cypert’s chances would be better if he had an appeal in the works when the Chase v. State decision occurred.

The petition states that Cypert didn’t appeal his plea or sentence and has no pending post-conviction proceedings in motion.

“The fact that he didn’t have an appeal pending makes retroactive application of the holding in that case somewhat more questionable by the court,” Martin said. “But he might be able to do it.”

Martin said the Chase decision was a major clarification of the law that spoke to the heart of the criminal statute.

“It was a dramatic clarification and it has had statewide impact,” he added.

Laws about sexual conduct between people in custody are needed, Martin said, but not as many as currently exist.

The law has been over-legislated due to political grandstanding and it’s made the law complex and difficult for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, he added.

“The proof is that the court had a major clarification,” Martin said of the Chase decision.

In June 2009, the state Supreme Court ruled in Chase v. State that “consent of an alleged victim” is “a defense to the crime of sexual assault of a person enrolled in school.” The court said the legislature specifically removed consent as a defense in a case of sex between a counselor and a patient or someone in the custody of the law, but it did not specifically remove consent as a defense to a crime in the case of sex between a teacher and a student.

The Legislature passed House Bill 571 in its recent session, which states that consent cannot be a defense when a teacher is accused of having sexual contact with a student at the same school. The new law became effective May 20.

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