A former Gulf Coast High School band director who touted his closeness to students is almost certain to go to prison for his intimacy with one in particular.
A Collier County jury on Thursday convicted Robert Hamberg, 53, of eight counts of lewd and lascivious battery for his sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. The verdict sheet virtually guarantees he will do time in a state prison.
Each of the second-degree felony counts carries a maximum 15 years incarceration.
Hamberg released a sigh as the verdict on each count was read aloud, and he showed little emotion as deputies escorted him to a holding cell. His wife, Dianne Hamberg, wept as her husband handed over his personal belongings. Neither the victim nor her parents were in the courtroom.
Hamberg is to be sentenced May 19, following a pre-sentence investigation by the Department of Corrections. He will be held at the Naples Jail Center pending his sentencing.
Prosecutors lauded the verdict outside the courtroom, calling jurors courageous for believing a victim, now 17, whom the defense repeatedly contended was lying.
“I feel so happy that she was believed by six people who heard all the evidence in this case,” Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano told reporters. Assistant State Attorney Steve Maresca prosecuted the case with Marzano.
Defense attorney Jerry Berry declined comment, saying only that he was “disappointed” in the outcome.
The judgment came 7 1/2 hours after a panel of three men and three women began deliberating the case. It came roughly 20 minutes after they returned to the jury room from hearing a two-hour recording of the accuser’s testimony _ testimony they first heard in person on Tuesday.
Jurors said they knew what they wanted to hear in the testimony, and they asked Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt to stop the recording about half-way through Berry’s cross-examination. Earlier, jurors asked for a specific definition of several terms used in the charging document, including “penetration.”
The decision concludes a four-day trial marked by graphic testimony and several twists. Hamberg was accused of multiple sexual encounters with the victim between February and May 2009, including acts in the school, in his car and at his home. Collier County deputies arrested him in May 2009, and he resigned from the school a month later.
Among the most surprising turns in the case was the testimony of Hamberg’s ex-wife, Jacqueline Rush, whom prosecutors flew from her home in Nebraska to answer two questions Thursday about Hamberg’s ability to use his tongue.
In a morning appearance, Rush contradicted Hamberg’s assertion he was medically “tongue-tied,” telling jurors her ex-husband used his tongue for both kissing and oral sex while the two were married. The distinction was significant, as one of the counts against the former band director alleged he performed oral sex on the victim.
Among the most damning pieces of circumstantial evidence were records of more than 9 1/2 hours of phone and text message conversations between Hamberg and the accuser. In closing arguments, prosecutors told jurors that Hamberg cultivated the accuser’s “school-girl” crush.
“The man who should have protected her took advantage of her teenage emotions,” Marzano said in her closing statement.
Hamberg testified on Wednesday that he was closer than most teachers to his students and wanted to help them with their personal problems.
“She just wanted to talk and I’m that kind of a teacher,” Hamberg said during testimony.
He also said he was naive about perceptions that come with a middle-aged man spending time alone with a 15-year-old girl.
But prosecutors used that claim to dredge up Hamberg’s past, in particular his resignation as band director at a Georgia high school. Hamberg left the school after questions were raised about his relationship with a student, Dianne Hancock. The pair married when Hancock graduated and turned 18.
The testimony may have damaged Hamberg’s credibility in a trial that Berry characterized from the beginning as “he said, she said.”
Berry never offered jurors a reason why the girl would invent the stories, beyond a claim she fed investigators and school administrators lies when they asked her about the rumors. Instead, the attorney worked to poke holes in the state’s arguments, referencing testimony from Hamberg and his wife.
He also questioned why a grown man would risk his freedom and career by being involved with a student.
“You have to believe that a 15-year-old teenager would be romantically and sexually interested in a 51-year-old man,” Berry said in his closing statement.
Thursday, six jurors indicated they believed just that.