Justice prevailed in a Sandpoint court of law last week.
But will the same verdict resonate in the court of public opinion?
The case involved former Lake City High School teacher and Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy administrator Nichole Noel Thiel. Thiel had been accused of sexual battery of a 16-year-old Lake Pend Oreille High School student in late 2015 and early 2016. Last Thursday, however, a Bonner County jury took only an hour to acquit her of the charges. But if nobody was in a celebratory mood, that would be understandable.
Too many people are quick to judge and slow to admit they were wrong. Emphasis is on the second part of that sentence.
The mere report of an alleged illegal act is enough for some people to condemn the accused. That human frailty can cause real damage in society. Just ask any of the multitude of Americans who have been falsely accused of illegal acts, only to struggle to regain whatever status they held before the accusations.
“The accusation of a sex crime between an adult and a minor creates an ugly stigma in itself, regardless of the proof,” Thiel’s attorney, Michael G. Palmer of Coeur d’Alene, told the courtroom last week. “And, jurors want proof of innocence despite the legal presumption of innocent until proven guilty. In a case like this with a teenage student saying it happened and the teacher denying it, it placed Ms. Thiel in the dilemma of feeling like she had to prove a negative.”
Nor is this case just about clearing a name. For Thiel and other falsely accused professionals, employment doors that would earlier have been open suddenly close. That’s horribly unfair. Having been cleared in court and her accuser’s likely financial motives disclosed by Palmer, Thiel’s victory should immediately restore the previous trajectory of her career path.
The Press doesn’t have access to Thiel’s personnel file, but the fact that she served in positions of responsibility with Coeur d’Alene School District, Charter Academy and Lake Pend Oreille School District suggest she is a qualified professional. Some of her peers have said she’s an excellent educator, and that our communities are somewhat diminished by her removal from a career she loves. That makes prospective students the ultimate losers in this case.
To repeat what a jury decreed last week, Nichole Thiel is cleared of any wrongdoing. She deserves her rightful place in the North Idaho education system or wherever else she chooses to work.
Those in the public who convicted Thiel early and will continue to disparage her, however, belong in the corner of the classroom. Pity, there aren’t enough dunce caps to go around.