Softball Coach’s Trial Goes to Jury
By Shirley Hsu
A jury began deliberating Thursday whether a well-known Harbor Area softball coach is guilty of molesting teenage girl athletes. During some five hours of closing statements, Deputy District Attorney Robert Hight and defense attorneys Robert Ernenwein and Nancy Kardon painted starkly contrasting portraits of Marco Espinoza, 59, who is on trial for six felony and four misdemeanor counts of inappropriate touching. One charge involves fondling an adult.
Hight characterized Espinoza as a man with personal troubles who took advantage of the respect he enjoyed from the community to gain the confidence of select teenagers, “chosen for their looks” he said, and in particular, to manipulate one 15-year-old girl with low self esteem. When he met no resistance from the girl, who adored him, the touching grew worse as he gave her private batting lessons at a local park, Hight said.
“This was a vulnerable and dejected child and he spoke poetry to her. He told her he loved her,” Hight said. Ernenwein countered with a different picture, describing Espinoza as a family man, married for more than 35 years, a man who in three decades of coaching softball for no pay had never been accused of molestation before the allegations arose last year.
Like a forest fire ignited by a cigarette tossed out a window, he said, the allegations were sparked by a woman who told a parent of one of the girls that Espinoza fondled her. In the tight-knit community of youth softball, the rumor spread, and the girls one after another came forward with their own allegations, said Ernenwein, who argued that pressure from police and parents encouraged the allegations. The woman, the only adult alleged victim listed in the charges, had earlier made statements to the police that she had been fondled but testified in court that stress and psychiatric drugs had erased her memory of what happened.
During the three-week trial, the prosecution called as witnesses, five teenage girls, who described incidents in which Espinoza fondled them during batting practice and while giving massages to treat injuries. The prosecutions primary witness, now, 16, testified the coach kissed her breasts and digitally penetrated her when they were alone. The prosecution also called the mother of one of the girls, who said she felt uncomfortable with the way the coach treated her daughter’s injuries, and once saw him put his hand up the front of a girl’s shirt to rub her shoulder. Another parent, called during the prosecution’s rebuttal, testified she saw Espinoza kiss one of the girls on the lips several times.
The defense called a host of character witnesses, including Espinoza’s son and daughter, former players, parents of players who were at practices, the director of the athletic complex where the alleged molestations occurred, an assistant coach, a batting expert and an assistant principal at a local school to testify they never saw any inappropriate touching.
A forensic psychologist and a retired homicide detective testified that the Los Angeles police investigation was inadequate, noting the interviews with the teenagers should have been recorded, and that books given to the 16-year-old could have encouraged false allegations. Espinoza himself also testified, denying the charges. Espinoza’s family and friends filled the aisles of one side of the courtroom Thursday. Son Jesse Espinoza said that the one-year insvestigation and trial has been a “living hell” for his family, but he does not wish harm or revenge on anyone. “God will make that decision,” he said. “The people I am most upset with are the parents." Some of them were at all the games and practices where some of these allegations supposedly took place. Some of them took place in 2003.
"Now all of a sudden, some of them have selective memories about what happened two or three years ago”, he said. “Do you know why these parents didn’t say anything then? Because nothing ever happened.” Hight told the jury the case is simply one of deciding who is telling the truth: the defendant or the girls. “One or the other has told the truth,” he said. “There is only one truth.”