The closing arguments in the case of a teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with a teenager he taught and coached centred on credibility and the interpretation of text messages.
Noel Strapp, 39, is charged with sexual assault and sexual exploitation — touching a young person for a sexual purpose.
The now 22-year-old complainant, whose identity is covered under a publication ban, testified last week that she and Strapp had about 100 sexual interactions in all — with 10 to 20 of those times including penetration. It happened in the school, at Strapp's home, in his children's play house and his car, she testified.
Strapp has denied all the allegations against him.
Defence lawyer Ian Patey argued in provincial court in St. John's on Friday that those allegations are fabricated and that the complainant had motive to make them up.
In testimony throughout the trial, it became clear that Strapp and the complainant had a very close relationship. Strapp was the complainant's teacher for several classes and her coach in several different sports, and she spent time at his home. He said she was like a part of the family, and she said he was the most important person in her life.
But Patey said there was evidence of a falling-out between the two while they were working together as coaches in early 2019, before the complainant went to police with the allegations against Strapp.
While on the stand last week, the complainant called Strapp "an angry, miserable, narcissistic person," and said she hated him.
The complainant also testified, however, that she lied to the police about her age, initially telling officers she was 15, not 16, when the alleged sexual relationship began so that Strapp would be charged.
"That hatred was so great," Patey said, "that it drove her to lie to police about her age … truth be damned."
Patey said credibility is often the key issue in sexual assault cases, and while it's normal to mix up a few details, he said the complainant was dishonest from the very beginning.
"How can the Crown submit her evidence is reliable on anything?" Patey asked.
Strapp's lawyer also pointed out inconsistencies between the complainant's testimony and her three statements to police. He said she has detailed memories of some sexual encounters but is vague on many others.
He also said allegations about using the Snapchat app to exchange sexual pictures, videos and conversations are not reliable, and can't be assumed because of the app's transitory nature.
The complainant told the court that they used Snapchat, which erases messages after they are read by the person receiving the message, because Strapp knew the messages could not be recovered.
There's no evidence on which to base a conviction. - Ian Patey
Patey said there's also nothing to be made of the thousands of text messages sent between his client and the young student. Of the 8,000 messages recovered by police, only eight made reference to anything sexual. He said that shows the charges can't be supported.
While the complainant did send inappropriate and sexual messages to Strapp, they both admitted some of the messages were just banter and inside jokes. Patey said Strapp either avoided the problematic messages or told her to delete them.
Patey argued the Crown cannot establish that sexual contact or interference occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.
"There is no evidence on which to base a conviction," he said.
Admission to lie shows reliability, Crown says
Crown prosecutor Jessica Gallant disagreed with Patey's assertions, however.
Gallant agreed that Strapp and the complainant had an incredibly close relationship but argued that his repeated claims that the complainant was "like a sister" were a shield to hide the abuse.
When the complainant went to the police with the allegations, Gallant said, the woman was afraid that Strapp wouldn't be charged, but the fact that she admitted in her testimony that she lied actually shows her reliability.
Gallant called it "nonsensical" that the complainant would admit to lying if she was just trying to get Strapp arrested. Victims want consequences, she said, but that doesn't make the complainant a liar.
As for the inconsistencies in the complainant's testimony, Gallant argues it's illogical to expect her to remember fine details about each sexual encounter, as it's harder to remember specific instances when things happen often.
"Inconsistencies are to be expected. They're normal," Gallant said.
The Crown prosecutor also argued the sexual text messages show a relationship that involved sexual grooming.
Just because there is that banter doesn't mean that sexual abuse isn't taking place. - Jessica Gallant
Gallant said it's "nonsense" for a teacher to tell a minor to delete text messages he felt were inappropriate, and argued that instead, he wanted the complainant to delete the messages so he wouldn't get caught.
If Strapp really viewed her as a sister, Gallant argued, he wouldn't have engaged with the overtly sexual texts.
"Just because there is that banter doesn't mean that sexual abuse isn't taking place," she said.
Gallant also said testimony throughout the trial showed Strapp's exploitation of and control over the young woman. He asked the complainant to delete the messages, and she did. They were eventually recovered from a backup of the messages on her computer.
The Crown prosecutor also said in her closing argument that the complainant said Strapp directed her to use Snapchat. That makes sense, Gallant said, as given the nature of what's alleged to have happened, Strapp would want to keep the abuse hidden.
Gallant said the complainant held firm in her testimony, and the evidence is candid, detailed, credible and reliable.
Judge Phyllis Harris will deliver her verdict in provincial court on Dec. 17.
Strapp has been suspended from his job since the beginning of the investigation into the allegations against him.