Several hours of testimony Friday by three students didn't convince a jury that a former Cape Girardeau Central High School science teacher was guilty of choking one of them into unconsciousness during a January incident in a downtown parking lot.
Roman D. Smith, 32, of Sikeston, Mo., was found not guilty on a misdemeanor third-degree assault charge. The Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney's Office charged Smith on Jan. 31. Court documents claimed he wrapped his feet around a 16-year-old male student's waist and applied a choke hold when a "play fight" escalated into something more serious.
Bryan Greaser, Smith's attorney, questioned why the two female students with the male students didn't immediately call for help or immediately contact police following the incident.
"I don't know," answered the 16-year-old female student whose car the three students were in the night of the incident. The students ran into Smith around 9 p.m. Jan. 21 as he was going to a friend's car from Hot Shots Bar & Grill on North Main Street to retrieve his cellphone. "I wish I would have," she said. "I don't know. I was just scared."
Called by prosecutor Julia Koester, the students, including the male student who was allegedly assaulted, testified that they found Smith to be drunk once they called him over to their car and that he soon began using bad language and acting aggressively toward the male student. The students said Smith tried to kick the male student and then jumped on his back, applying a choke hold until the student became unconscious, then turned and ran into another bar.
Smith testified in his own defense and said the encounter with the students was not what he expected when he approached the car. He said he told the students they should not be downtown and then engaged in some friendly conversation, but that once the male student exited the back seat of that car that he felt threatened because the student took a few steps toward him in an aggressive manner and was taller and heavier than he was.
"I did not want to hurt him and I did not want him to get hurt either," Smith said of the chokehold he applied to the student, which he admitted was a part of his training as a Missouri National Guard soldier.
Smith resigned from his job Feb. 9 after being placed on paid administrative leave by the school district. Greaser said at the time that the resignation was in no way an admission of guilt, that Smith regretted the incident and that evidence would prove that his client was "within the bounds of the law" the night of the incident.
The jury deliberated for around an hour and 15 minutes.
"We're thrilled with the verdict," Greaser said following the announcement. "I thought that people who heard all of the events and facts of this case would make the decision that he acted within the bounds of the law. The jury spoke to that. We were confident they would."
After the verdict Smith said he hopes to return to teaching, if possible.
One of the students who witnessed the incident said she wasn't sure how to respect teachers anymore and that she and the other students missed many days of school following the incident because they were being bullied by other students.
Penny Coleman, the mother of the student who claimed to have been assaulted by Smith, did pull her son out of school for several days because of bullying but later allowed him to return, she told the Southeast Missourian earlier this year.
Smith pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge for driving while intoxicated in 2011 and received probation.
Judge Michael Bullerdieck set a hearing for 9 a.m. on July 18 at the Cape Girardeau County Courthouse in Jackson to review Smith's probation and determine if punishment for violation is warranted since Smith admitted during the process of the trial that he entered the bar and grill. The terms of his probation dictate that he may not enter such an establishment.
North Main Street and Independence Street, Cape Girardeau, MO