Teacher child abuse trial gets underway
Northwest Florida Daily News - 10/13/2018
Oct. 13--FORT WALTON BEACH -- Jurors will be asked this week to decide whether former Okaloosa County special education teacher Marlynn Stillions abused a child in her care or simply did what she had to do to control a 4-year-old autistic child with aggression issues.
The oft-postponed trial of Stillions, whose Sept. 13, 2017, arrest for child abuse unveiled a scandal that would engulf the entire School District, got under way Friday morning.
First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins said he felt confident the case could go to the jury before the end of the day. If not, he said, the court would take the rare step of concluding the trial on a Saturday.
Stillions is charged with three counts of child abuse.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Jennifer Lieb promised the eight men and women in the jury box that she would introduce them to witnesses who would say they saw Stillions physically abuse Noah Perillo by either kicking him, tripping him or throwing him to the ground.
Defense attorney Robert Allen said in his opening statement that what the witnesses had seen wasn't child abuse, but a teacher's efforts to control a student with behavioral issues or simply protect herself from harm.
Allen told Circuit Judge Michael Flowers he intended to introduce a "loco parentis" defense on Stillions' behalf. Under loco parentis, Allen asserted Stillions was acting, in her role as a special education instructor in place of Noah's biological parent, and therefore held similar legal rights and responsibilities.
The first witness called by the prosecution was Eddie Perillo, Noah's father. Perillo testified that he noticed Noah's behavior change when he was in Stillions' class. He said Noah became more aggressive toward his parents and younger brother, and many times attempted to refuse to get on the bus to go to school.
A second witness, Noah's current teacher, testified she had noticed Noah's discomfort in a lunchroom setting when the boy was in Stillions' care.
One witness testified seeing Stillions knee Noah in the chest several times in the lunchroom. Another said she'd seen Stillions trip Noah as he walked across the lunchroom carrying a tray full of food.
The current teacher said in three weeks under her care, Noah's lunchroom anxiety had disappeared, and an initial wariness toward adults had also diminished considerably.
Marlynn Stillions took the stand in her own defense. On the stand, she explained how each of the incidents for which she is charged had occurred innocently on her part as she was trying to control him.
During cross-examination, Lieb questioned Stillions about the allegation she tripped Noah in the cafeteria. Lieb asked whether it was true she blocked a door to prevent Noah from leaving.
Stillions agreed Noah had tripped as a result of her blocking the door. She also conceded she told a school district investigator she had never tripped a student.
The defense should rest its case after Stillions' testimony. That will be followed by closing arguments, after which the case will go to the jury. Due to early deadlines, the Northwest Florida Daily News may have to delay reporting on a verdict, should one be reached Friday afternoon.
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