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Md. high court will weigh if sex abuse law applies to substitute teacher

Maryland’s top court will consider whether the state’s law against child sexual abuse or exploitation applies to a middle school substitute teacher who sent a student sexually charged text and other electronic messages outside of class.

The Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the state’s bid to reinstate the child abuse conviction of Keith Krikstan, whom the intermediate Court of Special Appeals later said was relieved of criminal liability under Maryland law because the after-hours exploitation did not occur while the student – identified in court papers as “N” – was under his care or supervision.

In its successful bid for high court review, the state said the messages cannot be divorced from Krikstan’s role as the student’s substitute teacher. The state said Krikstan specifically requested to be assigned to N’s class when a substitute teacher was needed, thus placing her in his care and supervision when she was emotionally vulnerable.

The Court of Special Appeals “applied a narrow and restrictive reading of the statute, requiring the communications in class to be explicitly or implicitly sexual,” Assistant Maryland Attorney General Zoe G. White wrote to the Court of Appeals. “In so doing, the intermediate appellate court failed to take account of the reality experienced by Krikstan’s young victim, in which the emotional manipulation that  took place in the classroom was intertwined with, and thus ‘involved,’ the increasingly sexual exploitation taking place via electronic communications.”

Krikstan’s appellate attorney countered that Maryland law is clear that exploitation of a minor is a criminal act when committed by someone who had care, custody or supervisory authority over the child “at the time of any alleged criminal conduct.”

“Here, respondent (Krikstan) did not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to show exploitative electronic communications outside of school and after school hours,” Assistant Maryland Public Defender Michael T. Torres wrote to the Court of Appeals. “Under Maryland law, respondent did not have supervisory responsibility over N at the time of any sexually exploitative communications – N’s parents/guardians did.”

The Court of Appeals will hear arguments on Dec. 6. The high court is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, State of Maryland v. Keith Krikstan, No. 18, September Term 2022.

According to prosecutors, a friend of N had given Krikstan her phone number in late November 2017, when he was serving as a substitute science and math teacher at a Charles County middle school whose name was not disclosed in court papers. Krikstan began a text messaging exchange with N, which evolved to pictures and video messages, typically late at night.

The messages included Krikstan’s declarations of love for N and a desire to date her when she turned 18 in about six or seven years. He also asked for photos of N’s rear end, either clothed or unclothed, and sent her photos of his private parts, according to prosecutors.

The exchanges ended in January 2018 after a boy at the school told a police officer he had heard about inappropriate communications between Krikstan and N.

A Charles County Circuit Court jury found Krikstan guilty of sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor in April 2019. He was sentenced nine months later to 25 years in prison, with all but nine years suspended, and five years’ supervised probation.

But the Court of Special Appeals overturned the conviction in an unreported opinion last April, citing insufficient evidence that Krikstan had “permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for the supervision” of N at the time of the exploitative messages, as required under Maryland Criminal Law Article § 3-602(b).

“Here  …the evidence of sexually exploitive conduct took place when (Krikstan) was neither at school nor serving as N’s substitute teacher,” Judge Irma S. Raker wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“(Krikstan) did not have a custodial position over N once the day ended,” added Raker, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “After school ended, (Krikstan) did not have N’s parent’s consent to continue to act as her custodian, nor did he consent to act as her custodian. That (Krikstan) was a substitute rather than permanent teacher makes this conclusion even clearer because he ceased being N’s teacher once the school bell rang on the days he was substituting.”

Raker was joined in the opinion by Judges Christopher B. Kehoe and Terrence M.R. Zic.

Kehoe, in a concurring opinion, urged the Maryland General Assembly to eliminate the law’s application only to those adults who have “permanent or temporary care, custody or responsibility for the supervision” of the abused or exploited child.

The state then sought review by the high court.