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Psychological Coercion Can Be Duress in Forcible Sex Case

About This Article Briefly: Duress in a forcible sex case can be mental in nature, as the following summary explains.  A conviction for forcible sex is no longer limited to physical force.
In 1999, John Doe (a pseudonym used to protect his identity as a victim) enrolled at the Army Navy Academy, a military boarding school in Carlsbad, California.  At that time, he was fourteen years old.  He lived on “campus” in a building that housed multiple cadets.

Defendant Jeffrey Scott Barton also lived on campus and was employed as the Director of Summer Programs.  He was heavily involved with the cadets in various activities, including being John Doe’s homeroom teacher.

After John Doe enrolled, he and Barton developed a close relationship.  Another Academy staff member soon became suspicious about the relationship and Doe was interviewed, but denied any molestation or inappropriate behavior by Barton.

However, about the same time, Doe told his grandparents that Barton was abusing and molesting him.  His grandparents did not take any action or report anything, apparently because they believed John Doe was falsely reporting this to leave the Academy.

In 2013, over a decade after he left the Academy, Doe told his mother for the first time that Barton had molested him years earlier when he was a cadet.  His mother called the police the next day.  During an interview with police and later at trial, Doe described multiple incidents in which Barton committed lewd acts and performed oral copulation and sodomy.  Subsequent investigation revealed two other victims who described how Barton had molested them before he molested John Doe.

Barton was then arrested, charged, and tried in San Diego County Superior Court.  He was convicted of five counts of forcible oral copulation (Penal Code § 288a(c)(2)) and one count of forcible sodomy (Penal Code § 286(c)(2)(A)).  However, the jury reached its verdict only after the trial court judge, Harry Elias, discharged a holdout juror after the judge was advised she refused to deliberate.  Thereafter, Judge Elias sentenced Barton to state prison for 48 years.

Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeal Div 1 San DiegoFourth Appellate District Court of Appeal Div 1 San Diego

Barton appealed on multiple grounds, but this article will only cover his argument that there was insufficient evident to support that the acts were forcible, which requires that the jury find the acts took place “by means of force, violence, duress, menace or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.”  Penal Code §§ 288a(c)(2), 286(c)(2)(A).

The prosecution responded to Barton’s appellate argument, arguing that the jury’s finding was premised on an implied finding that Barton performed the acts by means of duress.

The Fourth Appellate District Court, in People v. Jeffrey Scott Barton (2020 DJDAR 11577), agreed with the People’s opposition on this issue, noting that in the context of 288a and 286, duress is defined to mean “a direct or implied threat of force, violence, danger, hardship or retribution sufficient to coerce a reasonable person of ordinary susceptibilities to (1) perform an act which otherwise would not have been performed, or, (2) acquiesce in an act to which one otherwise would not have submitted.” People v. Leal (2004) 33 Cal.4th 999, 1004, quoting  People v. Pitmon (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 38, 48; see also People v. Senior (1992) 3 Cal.App.4th 765, 775.

The Fourth Appellate District then explained, “[t]he total circumstances, including the age of the victim, and his relationship to defendant are factors to be considered in appraising the existence of duress.”  Pitmon, supra, at 51; see also People v. Schulz (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 999, 1005 (“Duress can arise from various circumstances, including the relationship between the defendant and the victim and their relative ages and sizes.”).  Other factors included “warnings to the victim that revealing the molestation would result in jeopardizing the family.”  People v. Cochran (2002) 103 Cal. App. 4th 8, 14. 

“The very nature of duress is psychological coercion.  A threat to a child in adverse consequences, such as suggesting the child will be breaking up the family or marriage if she reports or fails to acquiesce in the molestation, may constitute a threat of retribution and may be sufficient to establish duress . . .” Cochran, supra, at 15.

Within the strict environment of the Army-Navy Academy, Barton used duress on Doe in two ways.  First, Barton would buy Doe food that allowed Doe to follow a vegetarian diet.  The Army-Navy Academy diet was otherwise heavy with meat in almost every meal.  Second, Barton presented himself as a “father figure” who was able to influence Doe’s mother and Doe’s grandparents.  Doe’s mother had placed Doe in the Academy with the understanding that if he behaved for a year there, he could return to a public school with all his friends.  Thus, any suggestion by Barton to the mother that Doe was misbehaving would have serious consequences to Doe.

Therefore, the verdicts as to forcible oral copulation and forcible sodomy were affirmed.  However, the ruling was otherwise reversed due to the juror replacement issue briefly discussed above.

We present this summary because the appellate court’s finding on duress show how easy duress can be established.  We think it is arguable in many cases where one otherwise would not consider duress, which is surprising.

The citation for the Fourth Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Jeffrey Scott Barton (4th App. Dist., 2020) 56 Cal. App. 5th 496, 270 Cal. Rptr. 3d 500.

For more information about forcible sex issues, please click on the following articles:

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