Md. Deaf School Aide's Touches: Innocent or Abuse?

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    A former Maryland School for the Deaf dormitory aide accused of sexually abusing seven girls and asking three of them for nude pictures had been warned that hugging and texting students was inappropriate, a prosecutor said in her opening statement Tuesday.

    But Clarence Taylor III's lawyer said the alleged molestation at the school's Columbia campus was merely accidental contact or innocent touching meant to enhance communication among the deaf.

    "A hug is not illegal. A high five is not illegal. Running into somebody in a hallway? Not illegal,'' defense attorney Brandon Mead told the Howard County jury of seven men and five women.

    Assistant State's Attorney JoAnna Miller said the case against the 38-year-old, married defendant depends largely on the victims' memories and Taylor's own videotaped police interview, in which he called the contact accidental. There is no video of Taylor hugging, kissing or fondling the girls, and investigators were unable to retrieve text messages in which he allegedly asked three of them for sexually explicit photographs, Miller said.

    Still, she said, the evidence will show that Taylor deliberately touched the girls, then in grades 4 through 8, despite warnings from a supervisor and staff members that his actions were inappropriate.

    "It was not an accident that he touched these girls in very private, intimate, sexual areas on their bodies,'' Miller said.

    The trial is scheduled to run through next week, with testimony from about 15 prosecution witnesses, including the alleged victims. Their allegations that they were molested from 2008 to 2011 surfaced last November when one of the girls confided in school staff member Lisa Velez, the state's first witness.

    "She looked so desperate to get it out. It was almost like she'd been holding onto it for a long time,'' Velez testified in American Sign Language. Five American Sign Language interpreters are assisting at the trial.

    Two other girls told similar stories to Velez, who informed authorities about their allegations. Four more girls eventually told police they'd been abused.

    Defense attorney Mead said the girls were best friends and basketball teammates -- "a clique in every sense of the word.''

    The seven abuse charges and three counts of soliciting a subject for child pornography carry maximum prison sentences totaling more than 175 years. On Monday, Taylor rejected the state's settlement offer of guilty pleas to three of the abuse charges and 21 years of active incarceration.

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