Park City High School athlete takes stand in tennis coach child abuse case
A Park City High School student took the stand Tuesday in a justification hearing for the felony child abuse case against her tennis coach.
Dozens of people showed up to court Tuesday in support of Park City High School tennis coach Lani Wilcox. She faces one count of aggravated child abuse, a third degree felony, and one count of interrupting an emergency phone call, a class B misdemeanor, following an altercation with a student tennis player on Aug. 29, 2022.
Her lawyers asked for the justification hearing. Under a new Utah law, before a case goes to trial, defendants can ask prosecutors to prove the crime was not committed in self defense or in defense of others.
Clayton Simms, Wilcox’s attorney, has called her actions that day self defense. He said not only was she trying to protect herself, she was also protecting other players on the court.
Wilcox testified Tuesday that it all started when she told the alleged victim what position she would be playing in the following day’s match. Upset over the news, the student went to the bathroom with her phone to calm down.
When she returned about an hour later, Wilcox testified she asked the student to leave because she wasn’t going to allow her to return to practice.
But the student didn’t leave. Surveillance video played in court shows Wilcox and the student exchanged words several times before the student slapped Wilcox across the face.
“ I turned around when she came after me and she hit me really really hard,” Wilcox said. “And at the same time she was hitting me she said, 'f*** you, Lani.'”
The prosecutor played surveillance video showing Wilcox approached the alleged victim several times.
Who approached who first and whether they got into each other's faces was a focus of the cross examination.
“But are you suggesting that because I get close to her, she’s allowed to hit me? Is that what you're suggesting?” Wilcox said.
“I am asking the questions. She’s not hitting you here, right?” the prosecuting attorney said.
“No, but she’s being very defiant for the last few minutes, if you’ve noticed, of not leaving," Wilcox said.
Prosecutor Patricia Cassell argued that after the slap, Wilcox put the player into a chokehold and she couldn’t breathe.
The video shows the two falling backwards. Wilcox testified that she suffered a concussion when her head hit the concrete.
Wilcox testified that she was stunned by the fall and wasn’t clear what happened next, other than she was trying to keep everyone on the court safe.
“Do you feel a responsibility to other tennis girls and other people who were there?” asked defense attorney Clayton Simms.
“I do. I’m their coach. I’m supposed to protect them,” Wilcox said.
“Is that what you did?” Simms asked.
“Yes,” Wilcox said.
Assistant tennis coach Brad Smith was on the court that day. After Wilcox and the player fell to the ground, video shows Smith running over to help. The video shows the player kick him in the groin.
Defense attorney Clayton Simms asked Smith if the altercation was a surprise.
“It was very unexpected. I would never expect a student to strike a senior citizen, almost, sorry Lani," Smith said.
On the stand, the player testified that she was upset but after she spent the hour in the bathroom speaking on the phone with her mother and stepfather she calmed down.
“I'm trying to, like, explain my situation, but she's also yelling at me. So I'm like, trying to defuse the situation, but also, like, stand up for myself,” she said.
She admitted to hitting Wilcox in the face and said she tried to walk away afterward.
“I really, I don't know what happened. Like next thing I knew I was on the ground. And then I realized I couldn't breathe,” she said. “So then I pushed her hands over my neck, because I'm kind of small so I was like, I pushed over my head, and I think one of her hands hit her face.”
She testified that she did not hit Wilcox very hard. She said the red mark on Wilcox’s face, which was displayed on a poster in court, wasn’t because of her, it was because Wilcox must have hit her own face.
“Yeah it’s Lani, but I didn't hit her that hard,” she said.
“She hit herself?” asked Simms.
“Yeah, that's what I think," she said.
Following the altercation, police showed up to the Park City Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center (MARC) as did the student’s parents.
When Wilcox met the parents to show them what their daughter had allegedly done, both Wilcox and Smith testified that the student’s stepfather said maybe Wilcox hit herself in the face.
The student’s mother took the stand Tuesday and testified that Wilcox admitted to putting their daughter in a chokehold.
“My husband said, ‘Did you choke my daughter?’”
“What did she say?”
“She said ‘Yes, in fact, I choked her twice,'” she said.
Wilcox’s attorney, under cross examination, reminded the student’s mother that she was under oath. Before the justification hearing wrapped up he brought Wilcox and Smith back up on the stand to contradict the mother’s testimony.
Judge Richard Mrazik did not issue a ruling. The prosecution and defense will next both submit briefings summarizing their arguments.
A decision on whether the case moves to trial is expected on March 24, 2023.