Court dismisses child abuse charge against tennis coach
A judge dismissed charges against Lani Wilcox, the tennis coach prosecutors accused of child abuse for an altercation she had with an athlete.
Friday afternoon, Third District Court Judge Richard Mrazik dismissed both of the charges against Wilcox: a third degree felony count of aggravated child abuse and a class B misdemeanor for damaging a communication device.
He dismissed the charges with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be reopened, although prosecutors may appeal his ruling.
The matter before the court Friday concerned the justified use of force, specifically, whether Wilcox was justified in restraining a student tennis player after the player slapped her in the face during a heated argument at practice.
Mrazik found the coach was justified and he said it was not a ruling he made lightly. He noted that juries used to be the ones making the decisions in pretrial justification hearings.
“The [Utah] Legislature requires judges to make this decision now,” the judge said. “I'm not sure that was a good change.”
The requirements put on judges also include a prohibition on dismissing a case without prejudice.
During his ruling, Mrazik stressed the high burden the prosecution had to meet. He said the “clear and convincing” standard was what controlled whether the case would go to trial.
In Utah, the defense only has to make a prima facie showing of justified use of force, but the prosecution needs to present clear and convincing evidence that such force was not justified.
That’s asymmetrical: the defense’s case is based on someone’s first impression of events, but the prosecution has to nearly prove the force wasn’t justified beyond reasonable doubt.
Mrazik even conceded any reasonable parent would be concerned about the events preceding the fight and Wilcox’s use of force against the player.
“The justified concerns of a reasonable parent are not the legal standard today,” the judge said.
Wilcox’s defense hinged on the argument the player needed to be restrained to prevent further harm to Wilcox herself and others on the tennis court.
Mrazik said he didn’t buy that Wilcox was in more danger after being slapped because video evidence showed the player turning away to leave.
He did say Wilcox met the prima facie—first impression—standard that her use of force was necessary to protect others from harm. That’s what tipped the scales.
Notably, after Wilcox and the player fell to the ground, the player kicked another coach in the groin when he ran over. But Mrazik did not list that incident in the facts supporting his ruling.
In the list of facts, he did include testimony from the player herself about the way in which she was restrained: the player pointed to her collarbone, not her neck. That testimony seemed to undercut the prosecution’s argument that Wilcox used a “chokehold.”
In a statement, Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said it was up to the court to determine if force was justified, not the prosecution.
“If any adult, let alone an individual in a position of special trust, restricts the breathing of a child in Summit County or strangles a child, they will also go through the same statutory process for the judge to determine justification,” she said.
When the case was dismissed, members of a very full gallery repeatedly broke decorum with applause and audible cheers.
“The truth has come out, and I believe justice was done,” Wilcox said.
The state has 30 days to file its appeal.