SANDPOINT — A Bonner County jury acquitted a former Lake Pend Oreille High School instructor accused of sexual battery of a teen on Thursday.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about an hour before rendering a not guilty verdict in the case against Nichole Noel Thiel.
Friends and family of Thiel’s who were seated behind her in the courtroom gallery let out a clipped cheer after the verdict was announced.
Thiel was accused of having sex with the teen on late 2015 and early 2016 at her rented condominium in Sandpoint. Thiel was 46 at the time of the incident, while the boy was 16.
The verdict followed a three-day trial in 1st District Court that consisted almost entirely of witness testimony. Physical evidence of the illegal tryst was largely non-existent during the proceeding, which meant jurors had to judge the case on the credibility of an adult authority figure and a teen who admitted he was seeking sex with Thiel.
Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall acknowledged during closing remarks that the teen’s character may not have appeared sterling, he reminded jurors that it was irrelevant in the context of the criminal charge against Thiel. She was an adult with a moral and professional obligation not to have sexual contact with the teen, while he was too young to give consent due to their age disparity.
The defense suggested the teen had a financial motive in that a conviction could work in the favor of a lawsuit against the Lake Pend Oreille School District, although Marshall argued that the teen’s honest but unflattering testimony would certainly work against him in a civil proceeding.
Thiel, now 48, testified on Wednesday that she had invested $90,000 into achieving her teacher certifications which landed her a job as vice principal and athletic director at the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy. She hired to fill those posts before the sex allegations came to light.
“That’s a lot of motive to wish it didn’t happen,” Marshall told jurors.
But Thiel’s defense counsel, Coeur d’Alene attorney Michael G. Palmer, argued that the teen had nothing to lose by raising the allegations, while his client stood to lose everything.
“He has a massive incentive to get her convicted,” Palmer said in reference to claim for damages the teen’s mother filed against the school district.
Palmer parsed through discrepancies in details of the teen’s account. There were disputed accounts over whether Thiel’s pet parrots were in the pied-å-terre she kept to reduce the frequency of her commutes from her home in Coeur d’Alene and whether the condo’s imitation balcony was actually big or accessible enough for the teen to step outside to smoke a cigarette as he had testified to.
Marshall said he was disappointed by the jury’s decision, but respects the process. He also praised LPOHS Principal Geoff Penrose for taking the allegations seriously and said he would be conducting follow-up with Penrose and school district Superintendent Shawn Woodward.
“Parents in our community have a right to know our teachers are keeping appropriate boundaries with the students. Teachers who cross that line will be prosecuted,” Marshall said after the verdict was reached.
Palmer noted that his client maintained her innocence throughout the proceedings and relied upon the support of friends, family and colleagues while the case was under a media spotlight and a rush to judgment among some in the community.
“The accusation of a sex crime between and adult and a minor creates an ugly stigma in itself, regardless of the proof. And, jurors want proof of innocence despite the legal presumption of innocent until proven guilty. In a case like this with a teenage student saying it happened and the teacher denying it, it placed Ms. Thiel in the dilemma of feeling like she had to prove a negative,” Palmer said.
Palmer added that the state was placed in unenviable dilemma because the teen was a student with discipline and credibility problems.
“On the other hand, his accusation involved an abuse of trust and a registrable sex crime. The crime was a felony which carried up to life in prison upon conviction. Given that, it’s no wonder they decided to leave it in the hands of a jury to decide Ms. Thiel’s guilt or innocence,” said Palmer, who was grateful for jurors’ service in the case.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.