Autism part of defense for ex-Springboro gym teacher facing 36 sex charges

Lawyers for the ex-Springboro gym teacher facing 36 felony sex charges stemming from alleged acts on his first-grade students want to disprove his sexual gratification through evidence showing he is autistic.

John Austin Hopkins’ lawyers indicate they plan to call Frederick Peterson, a local psychologist, to testify on “a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder which has a significant bearing on the main issue in this case of sexual gratification,” according to a motion filed in the case.

The trial of Hopkins, 25, of Springboro is scheduled to begin Monday.

He is accused of gross sexual imposition involving 28 first-grade girls during his gym class at Clearcreek Elementary School from December 2018 to March 2019.

Also in anticipation of the trial, Judge Robert Peeler completed a questionnaire used to select the jury after lawyers in the case were unable to complete the pretrial assignment.

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David Allen Chicarelli, the elder member of the father-son team representing Hopkins, said Peeler completed the questionnaire because “the prosecutor didn’t like a lot of the questions” he proposed. Chicarelli indicated he was “very happy” with the judge’s questionnaire.

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell declined to comment on the autism defense. He said prosecutors objected to questions that were “editorial in nature”.

In his order following Wednesday’s hearing, Peeler also set rules separating witnesses and barring them from viewing a live video feed of the court used by prosecutors.

The Chicarellis also filed a motion urging Peeler to “prevent the cumulative testimony of the alleged victims’ parents on the grounds that it is inadmissible hearsay” more “prejudicial” than of value as evidence.

Prosecutors have indicated they plan to call up to 28 parents during the trial in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

The trial, scheduled for five days, is expected to begin with jury selection. Then the prosecution would make its case.

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School surveillance video from Hopkins’ classroom, hours of which were reviewed before the charges were filed, is expected to be a major aspect of the prosecution’s case.

Video evidence shows Hopkins putting his “bare hand up multiple children’s shirts,” a skirt, “nuzzling into the neck of several children” and “spreading several children’s legs to have the children straddle his crotch,” according to a prosecutors’ memorandum.

As many as five of the alleged victims have been selected to testify. Forensic specialists who interviewed the first graders are also expected to testify for the prosecution and be challenged by the defense.

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In an earlier pretrial motion, Hopkins’ lawyers compared his actions to those of Santa Claus listening to children describe what they want for Christmas while seated on his lap.

At the time, Fornshell responded: “I’m not sure what Santa Claus he took his kids to,” prompting the elder Chicarelli to say the prosecutor’s response was inappropriate.

A picture of the younger member of the defense team, David Anthony Chicarelli, on Santa’s lap at a holiday fund-raiser was posted on social networks. Parents of the alleged victims expressed outrage.

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Hopkins, a graduate of Sprngboro school and son of a longtime Springboro teacher, also coached swimming at Coffman Y in Springboro, prior to the case.

He is wearing an electronic monitor while on house arrest at his parents’ home.

A lawsuit filed against the school district, employees and Hopkins on behalf of some of the 88 families with children whose videos with Hopkins were presented to a grand jury is stalled in federal court.

RELATED: Parents sue Springboro schools, former teacher over sex crimes case

If convicted, Hopkins faces up to five years in prison on each charge.

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