06/25/04 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

Judge upholds teacher's sex indictment

Details of Mendham Township woman's behavior toward boy, 14, called relevant

A Superior Court judge on Thursday upheld an indictment that charges a Mendham Township woman with having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy from the Paterson school district in which she taught.

Robert Dunn, the defense lawyer for 37-year-old Jodi Marie Thorp, argued unsuccessfully to Judge Salem V. Ahto that a Morris County grand jury was given a slew of titillating details about Thorp's behavior and tendencies that were unrelated to her specific, alleged conduct with the youth and which influenced their decision to indict her on sexual assault and child endangerment charges.

"They painted a picture of my client with selected witnesses," Dunn said of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office presentation to a grand jury in October. Dunn argued that the prosecutor's office had a duty to present witnesses to the grand jury who could support Thorp's assertions of innocence, and said he may file a new motion to get the charges dismissed based on information contained in police reports in which some potential witnesses claim they never saw any improper conduct between Thorp and the youth.

Thorp is accused of having sex at least 20 times between June 2001 and Oct. 31, 2002, with a teenage boy when he was between the ages of 14 and 15. Suspended from teaching at Paterson Public School No. 24 in November 2002, Thorp allegedly met the teen at the school but launched the sexual relationship with him when he joined the nonprofit club she founded -- Helping Underprivileged Gifted Students or HUGS -- to give poor, talented youths from Paterson the chance for recreational outings and trips. Thorp frequently had HUGS members spend weekends at her Mendham Township home and supposedly slept with the youth both at her home and on out-of-state excursions.

Dunn based his motion for dismissal of the indictment on allegations that several teens made to grand jurors about Thorp playing Twister in short-shorts with the group, dancing erotically, encouraging a girl to bare her breasts, and buying alcohol for HUGS members on a trip. Dunn said these details were unrelated to Thorp's specific conduct with the youth, but the judge and Morris County Assistant Prosecutor Melanie Gross disagreed.

"It was proper, not unduly prejudicial and probative," Gross said, explaining that the other acts provided context to Thorp's overall behavior with the youths.

The judge noted that there is more leeway in a grand jury presentation than would normally be allowed at a trial, and that indictments are not supposed to be disturbed unless they are "palpably defective" or there is evidence that prosecutors have intentionally misled or subverted the grand jury process.

The indictment is the instrument that paves the way for a criminal trial, and Ahto said that the details grand jurors heard would not necessarily be admissible at trial because of stricter evidence rules. He set another conference on the case for July 13.