After 3 1/2-years of waiting and two days of testimony, she was finally free to go.
The former Elkins Middle School teacher accused of having a sexual affair with her then-15-year-old student was found not guilty on all six charges brought against her Thursday in Randolph County Circuit Court.
Autumn Rae Faulkner, 29, of Beverly was acquitted of three felony counts of third-degree sexual assault and three felony counts of sexual abuse by a custodian or person of trust to a child. Faulkner was arrested on March 25, 2009, by Sgt. A.S. Loudin with the West Virginia State Police for allegedly having sexual intercourse with her former student - who was then 15- on three separate occasions from December 2008 to February 2009.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Casey Houser
Autumn Rae Faulkner takes the witness stand Thursday afternoon, prior to being acquitted on six felonies stemming from allegations that she had a sexual relationship with a former student.
As the jury foreman read the verdict aloud, tears of relief streamed down Faulkner's face as she sat next to her attorney, Rocco Mazzei. All she could think about at the time, she said after court had recessed, was "my kids" - her 9-year-old son and 2-year-old son. Faulkner said she knew she would be found not guilty from the outset "because I'm not guilty."
She also said she wanted people in the community to know that an accusation doesn't equal guilt.
"You're not guilty until you're proven guilty," she said. "For so long, people in this whole place have thought of me as being a bad person and I'm not. I thought Judge Wilfong was very fair."
Faulkner's attorney, Mazzei, echoed Faulkner's feelings about Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Goodwin Wilfong, calling her "one of the finest judges in the state - not because I won, but because we're very lucky to have her in this county."
Following the trial, special prosecuting attorney Steve Jory said he didn't believe there was anything else the prosecution could have done differently that would have altered the outcome of the case.
"I think we presented every piece of evidence we had available to present," Jory remarked. "The case was fairly tried and the jury made its decision. Apparently they didn't believe we had enough evidence to prove our case."
The state's evidence - or its lack thereof - was the subject of Mazzei's closing arguments Thursday.
"The state has this theory that a whole lotta text messages somehow equals guilt of sex," Mazzei said, referring to the voluminous number of text messages Faulkner sent to the 18-year-old student based on documents the prosecution subpoenaed from AT&T. "[Jory] wants you to convict her on a number of text messages. You should require the state to prove that this theory ... as it is, this theory is mere speculation. You haven't seen the content of a single text message."
Mazzei also highlighted the fact that the state hadn't presented any DNA evidence.
"The state took phones and [Faulkner's] computer, her couch, her comforter, bedding, a car, and no evidence ever came out of that that would prove Mrs. Faulkner was guilty," Mazzei said.
During his final statement, however, Jory told Mazzei that the prosecution wasn't able to present any DNA evidence because "you wouldn't allow your client and her husband to give (DNA) samples and we could not complete lab analysis." When asked after the trial if the court could have compelled Faulker and her husband, Scott Faulkner, to submit their DNA for testing, Jory said that it was possible, but the previous prosecutor in the Faulkner case -- former Randolph County Prosecutor Richard Busch -- had failed to do so.
When asked why he didn't later ask the court to order the Faulkners to submit their DNA for analysis, Jory simply said "there were a lot of factors" involved.
The three sexual encounters at the heart of the case allegedly occurred on Dec. 21, 2008; Feb. 1, 2009; and sometime in the first half of February 2009. According to previous reports, count one of the indictment, sexual assault in the third degree, alleged that Faulkner engaged in sexual intercourse and sexual intrusion with a minor who was at least four years younger -- her former student -- on Dec. 21, 2008.
Count two, sexual abuse by a custodian or a person in a position of trust to a child, alleged that Faulkner engaged in sexual intercourse with a minor in her care. Counts three and four alleged that Faulkner again engaged in sexual intercourse with the same minor on Feb. 1, 2009. Counts five and six alleged Faulkner again engaged in sexual intercourse with the minor in the first half of February 2009.
If Wednesday was the 18-year-old student's day to tell his story about what happened on those dates, Thursday was Faulkner's day to tell hers; she and her husband, Scott Faulkner took the stand as the final two witnesses of the day. Scott Faulkner testified that on Dec. 21, 2008 -- the night the student claimed to have first had sex with Faulkner -- he and Faulkner left their home with their two-year-old son, Tanner, around 5 p.m. and ate dinner at Humberto's Mexican restaurant. Then, the family went to Elkins High School, where Scott Faulkner played pick-up basketball from 6 to 8 p.m., according to his testimony. Scott Faulkner said the family left in the only car they owned -- a white Pontiac -- around 8 p.m. and went home.
The student testified that on Feb. 1, 2009, Faulkner left a gathering at Journeez Bar to pick him up "sometime after halftime" and bring him to her residence, where the two "talked a little bit, started kissing" and then had sex. However, Scott Faulkner and Autumn Faulkner said that they had both been invited to a Superbowl party organized by one of Autumn Faulkner's teaching colleagues, but Scott did not attend because their son, Tanner, felt sick. Scott opted to stay home with Tanner and encouraged his wife to go to the party.
Mazzei asked Scott Faulkner if he and Tanner ever left the Faulkners' residence that evening -- the same night that the student and Faulkner allegedly had sex on her living room couch -- and Scott Faulkner replied that he and Tanner had stayed in for the duration of the evening.
"I watched TV and laid on the couch with Tanner," Scott Faulkner testified. "Autumn came home around 10 p.m." after stopping at Walmart to buy vanilla ice cream for Tanner.
When Faulkner took the stand, she denied having sex with the student on Dec. 21, 2008 and Feb. 1, 2009 -- and also said that she did not have sex in the front passenger seat of her vehicle on a gravel road sometime in the first half of February, as the student had alleged the previous day.
Faulkner claimed she and the student texted so much because she was helping him with problems at school and home. She said the early morning text messages between the two -- as early as 4:58 a.m. on one occasion -- were simply evidence of her efforts to wake him up and convince him to go to school because "he hated school, hated every second he was there."
"He had been in counseling a lot of years prior to getting me [in class], his dad had been in prison, in seventh grade, his grandmother was murdered," she said. "I think it was eighth grade when his dad got out of prison and shortly after that he moved in with his dad... his dad liked to drink - I guess you could characterize that as an alcoholic."
Faulkner described the student as "unstable"
and testified that in February she began to find the student's messages "a little inappropriate."
"He would start out by saying I was hot, he wanted to be with me, he couldn't live without me," Faulkner said. "I made a decision that it had to stop but I still felt bad because he had nobody." Faulkner said that at one point, the student told her that he would make a better father than her husband, Scott Faulkner.
Mazzei asked Faulkner if she'd ever told the student that she wanted to marry him, as he had claimed Wednesday.
"Um, no," she said emphatically. "It's taken me 10 years to train the one [husband] I have, and I don't want another one." Mazzei also asked Faulkner to show the outline of a butterfly tattoo she had had on her shoulder in 2008 and 2009 when the alleged encounters with the student occurred -- as well as stretch marks on her body from the birth of her first child, Tanner. Mazzei pointed out that on March 25, 2009, when the student was interviewed by Loudin, Loudin asked him if Faulkner had any marks on her body, and the student said no.
"Is there any way possible someone could have missed those stretch marks?" Mazzei asked Faulkner.
"I don't think so," she replied, indicating that her stretch marks were more severe than most women's stretch marks.
"You can't deny that this is a lot of text messages," Mazzei continued. "Do you see now that maybe it's a bad idea to be overly concerned about a student?"
Faulkner said she saw texting with the student as a "bad judgment now," although she didn't at the time.
"It's gotten me where I am," she remarked.
During his cross-examination of Faulkner, Jory unveiled evidence showing that the student's grandmother was actually murdered in 2005 -- not in 2006 or 2007, as she had stated. Jory also showed Faulkner the AT&T records and pointed out that during the week of Dec. 8 through Dec. 12, 2008, Faulkner and the student exchanged over 1,500 text messages -- many of which were during the school day.
"How were you helping Corey to learn while you were sending him 80 to 100 text messages a day while he was in class?" Jory asked. "Mrs. Faulkner, what were these text messages truly about?"
Faulkner maintained that they were about the student's "everyday life."
"I didn't do anything but try to help [the student]," Faulkner said, choking up. "Ever. I never tried to hurt him ever. I always tried to encourage him."
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.