Ex-school psychologist cleared of sex assault charges

Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A former Pittsburgh school psychologist accused of sexually assaulting a boy over an eight-year period was found not guilty on all counts on Friday.

Attorneys for Donald Stettner, 53, said there was never any abuse.

"When I looked at the allegations, the absurdity of what was being said overwhelmed us," said defense attorney Thomas A. Pavlinic after the verdict. "We're grateful we had a jury that understood how to apply the law."

The jurors deliberated for more than three days, and even asked Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski how much longer they would have to continue on Wednesday, when it appeared that they were deadlocked.

But they then came back with a unanimous verdict Friday morning. After it was read, Deputy District Attorney Laura Ditka wrapped her arm around the victim -- who is now 29 years old -- and whisked him out of the courtroom.

City of Pittsburgh Detective Brian Johnson was visibly frustrated by the verdict.

"The system works, and we allow the system to work," he said afterward. "When you do sex abuse cases and have a child involved, you wouldn't be a human being if it didn't take a lot out [of you]."

From the beginning of the trial, defense attorneys attempted to paint the alleged victim -- a relative of Mr. Stettner -- and his mother as vindictive and dysfunctional.

Mr. Stettner was charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, criminal conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children from 1991 to 1998.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer DiGiovanni said during opening statements that the assaults began when the victim was living with his mother.

She said Mr. Stettner assaulted and isolated the boy, and the mother failed to take any steps to protect him.

The victim's mother, who testified for the government in the Stettner trial, pleaded guilty in March 2009 to indecent assault, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Monday.

But Mr. Pavlinic focused repeatedly during the trial on the lack of medical evidence showing the victim had been repeatedly sexually assaulted over such a long period of time.

"We were put in a position of trying to prove a negative, which is one of the most difficult things to do," he said.

Mr. Stettner still faces additional charges for the alleged indecent assault of a young girl from September 2001.

There's currently a defense motion pending challenging the girl's competence to testify.

Mr. Stettner last week filed a defamation lawsuit against the victim in the trial that just ended, as well as several local media outlets, including KDKA Radio and the City Paper.

In it, he alleges that the victim had made false statements about him, and that they have then been maliciously reported by the media organizations, ruining Mr. Stettner's reputation in the community.