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Camden Military exonerated in hazing trial

Posted: July 3, 2013 5:09 p.m.
Updated: July 5, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A federal jury exonerated Camden Military Academy (CMA) on all counts in a nearly four-week long hazing trial after deliberating for only 90 minutes Tuesday night.

A former student cadet, known only as “JBC” alleged in a 2011 lawsuit that he had been repeatedly beaten and raped by other cadets at the school. In the lawsuit, JBC -- who was 13 when the alleged incidents took place in 2008 and is now 18 -- claimed one cadet had raped him, another had sodomized him and that he had been repeatedly bullied. The lawsuit claimed school officials failed to stop the bullying.

During closing arguments, plaintiff’s attorney Marguerite Willis said the jury should find CMA and three of its top officials responsible for not dealing with a “climate of violence” there.

During his closing argument, CMA attorney Duke Highfield not only attacked Willis’ versions of events, but claimed JBC had changed his story about the alleged incidents several times before the trial. Highfield also attacked Dr. James Ballenger, an expert plaintiff’s witness who claimed JBC’s different accounts were due to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ballenger admitted earlier in the trial that he earned $125,000 for examining JBC; Highfield claimed that meant his testimony would be whatever plaintiff’s attorneys wanted.

Monday saw CMA administrative supervisor Vertis Wilder take the stand. He denied jabbing JBC and ejecting him from a room, something plaintiff’s attorneys said illustrated the atmosphere at CMA.

Also testifying Monday was Lt. Col. Pat Armstrong, the school’s commandant of cadets, describing the school’s chain of command. He said part of new cadets’ induction to the school includes instructions that they are not to “put their hands” on fellow cadets and an oath to act in an “honorable manner.” Armstrong admitted bullying exists at CMA, but that the administration works to combat it.

Wilder and Armstrong were named as defendants in the lawsuit, as was Headmaster Col. Eric Boland, who issued a statement to the press late Tuesday night.

“We are ready to put this case behind us and continue instilling self-confidence, leadership and preparing young men for the future,” Boland said.

He said school officials have been “completely overwhelmed” by the number of graduates and families who have written or called in support of CMA during the past few weeks.

“Cardiologists, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and college students, all writing to tell us they would not be the men they are today if they didn’t have the honor of attending Camden Military Academy, and the privilege of working with such a prestigious facility. That really meant a lot to us,” Boland said. “We want to assure families whose children attend CMA, or who are considering this fine school, that we will continue to provide a safe environment where young men are encouraged to reach their full potential. We want families to know that bullying and hazing have never been, and never will be, tolerated at CMA.

“Now, it’s time to get to work, finishing off the summer school and preparing for a successful start to the school year in August.”

In a phone call to the C-I Wednesday afternoon, Boland added, “We are excited to have been exonerated on all counts. We have a strong stance against any kind of hazing, bullying or physical abuse against cadets.”

Also Wednesday, in an open letter emailed to the C-I, CMA Board of Trustees Chairman Cam Walters said he was pleased with the trial’s outcome.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the courageous actions of the CMA faculty, staff and administration who have been in court over the last four weeks in a hard fought battle to defend the school’s legacy,” Walters said. “We are thankful for Col. Boland’s leadership and are ready to put this behind us and get back to doing what we do best -- preparing young men for the future. We’ve got a fine school, and a fine tradition, and we’re happy to continue.”

In a brief interview Wednesday morning, Willis, the plaintiff’s attorney, also called the trial “hard-fought.”

“Judge (Joe) Anderson said on two occasions that this was the hardest case he’s had in 26 years on the bench as to evidentiary rulings,” Willis said. “In the next several days, we will be carefully examining those rulings as well as the rest of the trial proceedings to make a decision to seek a new trial.”

--from news and staff reports

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