Court: Boarding school owner can question accuser's history

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The founder of an Iowa boarding school for troubled youth will get another chance to try to discredit a student whose testimony helped convict him of sexual abuse charges, under a court ruling issued Friday.

The Iowa Supreme Court ordered a hearing that will allow Midwest Academy founder Benjamin Trane to question whether the accuser had a history of making false abuse allegations against her adoptive and foster parents. If a judge determines that she previously fabricated allegations, then Trane will be entitled to use that information in his defense at a new trial on sexual abuse and child endangerment charges, the court ruled.

The ruling was a limited victory for Trane, 41, who has been free on bond living in Idaho as he appeals a conviction that could send him to prison for nine years and label him a sex offender.

Trane opened the school in Keokuk in 2003, targeting teens who had a history of behavioral and disciplinary problems. Law enforcement officials raided and closed the school in 2016 after receiving allegations that some students were held in isolation rooms for days and weeks at a time, and that a 17-year-old female student had accused Trane of sexual abuse.

Jurors convicted Trane of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and sexual exploitation by a counselor, related to her allegations. At the same trial, he was convicted of child endangerment for keeping two 12-year-old male students in isolation rooms for days on end, where they engaged in acts of self-harm and lost weight as they refused to eat.

Trane has argued that the student made up the sexual assault allegations because she was mad that he would not let her leave campus over a Thanksgiving holiday.

In a deposition the day before trial was to begin, she revealed that she had previously accused her foster and adoptive parents of sexual abuse. Trane's attorney spoke with her adoptive mother, who alleged that both sets of parents had been the subject of false claims shortly after the student arrived at the boarding school.

It wasn't immediately clear whether those allegations were investigated. The court ruling said that a previous allegation of physical abuse had been determined to be unsubstantiated.

Trane sought a pre-trial closed hearing, as required under Iowa's rape shield law, to determine whether the allegations were false and therefore could be the subject of testimony at trial. A judge denied the motion as untimely, noting Trane had demanded a speedy trial.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Edward Mansfield said the judge should have held the hearing and briefly delayed the trial if necessary.

He wrote that such evidence could have been valuable to Trane's defense by showing the student had a pattern of false allegations toward authority figures.

If the evidence shows false allegations were made, Trane will be entitled to a new trial on all counts "because of the risk that all three verdicts could have been affected by the limits on Trane's ability to present a defense on the sex-related counts," Mansfield wrote.