Oral argument: Tongue-tied band director's defense in sex-with-student trial

Video from NBC-2

— One person was tongue-tied. Everyone else was flabbergasted.

In a wild third day of trial for former Gulf Coast High School band director Robert Hamberg, jurors heard testimony about Hamberg’s private birthmarks, his previous tenure at a Georgia high school, previously barred from the trial; and his ability to use his tongue.

Hamberg, 53, at one point opened his mouth for jurors to show them he was medically “tongue-tied,” and unable to stick his tongue beyond his teeth.

Prosecutors, in turn, vowed to fly Hamberg’s ex-wife from Georgia to have her testify about her husband’s ability to use his tongue. If taken, the move would lengthen the trial, likely sending jurors into deliberations by late Thursday morning or early Thursday afternoon.

Hamberg is charged with eight counts of lewd and lascivious battery on the accusations of a 15-year-old female band student who told authorities the two had a sexual relationship between February and May 2009. If convicted, Hamberg could face a maximum 15 years in prison for each count.

He testified in his defense on Wednesday, telling jurors he made himself available to the accuser by phone and in private because of her personal problems at home and her potential in his band. He repeatedly denied having an inappropriate relationship with the girl.

“She just wanted to talk and I’m that kind of a teacher,” Hamberg told Assistant State Attorney Steve Maresca.

Hamberg resigned from Gulf Coast High School in June 2009, shortly after his May arrest.

In a twist that went against the defense, Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt permitted the prosecution to question Hamberg about his previous tenure as band director at a high school in Georgia, a line of questioning the judge previously barred from the trial due its relevance.

Hamberg resigned from Norcross High School in 1988 after questions were raised about his relationship with a student, Dianne Hancock. Hamberg divorced his wife at the time and married Hancock, his current wife, when she graduated.

Wednesday, Maresca protested that Hamberg had opened the door to such questions when the band director testified he was naive about perceptions arising from an adult teacher spending time alone with a student.

“The door is open,” Hardt agreed.

Maresca used it to his advantage, turning Hamberg’s claims of ignorance against him. When he asked Hamberg why he brought the teenager to his Bonita Springs home alone, the former teacher characterized the decision as a mistake in retrospect

“Sir, you had this situation in Norcross,” Maresca shot back. “You didn’t learn anything from it?”

Hamberg paused.

“She wasn’t a student at the time,” he replied, speaking of his wife.

Dressed in a light brown coat and a tie, Hamberg kept his hands folded on the stand and appeared comfortable during much of his testimony. He answered questions willingly, although he appeared to grow impatient as Maresca’s cross-examination continued.

His testimony filled empty seats in the courtroom, as attorneys, clerks and other spectators arrived to hear his account.

Diane Hamberg testified on behalf of her husband Wednesday, telling jurors she was aware of the more than nine hours Robert Hamberg spent on the phone and through text messaging with the accuser. Her husband was close to his students, she said.

She also told jurors about several birthmarks on her husband’s body, none of them previously noted by the accuser. One was a nickel-sized mark near his genitals, she said. The other was a large mark on his left buttock.

But it was another personal trait that lead to an odd moment in the courtroom. Hardt permitted Robert Hamberg to open his mouth before jurors to show them the extra bit of skin beneath his tongue, an anomaly he said prevented him from sticking his tongue beyond his teeth.

“I’m tongue-tied,” Hamberg told jurors.

The distinction is significant. The accuser told authorities and testified on Tuesday that Hamberg often placed his tongue in her mouth when they would meet surreptitiously in a school dressing room to kiss. She also claimed he once gave her oral sex, the basis for one of the eight counts against Hamberg.

Maresca threatened to fly Hamberg’s ex-wife, Jacqueline Rush, down from Georgia for rebuttal testimony regarding Hamberg’s tongue, should Hardt allow the band director to open his mouth before jurors.

“Well, you better get on the phone,” Hardt replied.

Jurors also heard testimony from the victim’s parents on Wednesday, as well as lead detective Frank Pilarski of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Pilarski guided jurors through phone records between Hamberg and the accuser from Feb. 27 to May 16.

The records revealed a pattern--Hamberg would text the teenager on weekdays after school, after which she would call him on his home land-line and they would talk. The pair texted on weekday evenings, and they did not text on the weekend.

Hamberg testified he texted the teenager to let her know he was free to speak about her personal issues, including her troubled home life, as well as her music instruction.

The state rested its case on Wednesday, and the defense finished with its witnesses. Hardt released jurors at 3:30 and told them to expect a rebuttal witness early Thursday, followed by closing arguments and jury instructions. Six jurors will decide the case.

Asked whether Rush, Hamberg’s ex-wife, was the rebuttal witness, Maresca declined to answer.

“She’s on the witness list,” he replied.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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