SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A jury acquitted a man Thursday of assaulting a priest he says molested him more than three decades ago during a camping trip and left him with tormented memories that led to alcohol abuse, depression and suicide attempts.
The verdict came after defendant William Lynch took the witness stand during the two-week trial and acknowledged punching Jerold Lindner several times on May 10, 2010.
While previously pleading not guilty, Lynch said he hoped to use the case to publicly shame Lindner and bring further attention to the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal. Lynch said the verdict surprised him.
"I honestly thought I was going to jail," he said after the verdicts were read. "It turned our better than I expected."
Lynch could have faced four years in prison if convicted. Jurors acquitted him of felony assault and elder abuse. It deadlocked 8-4 to convict him of the lesser charge of misdemeanor assault. The jury began deliberations late Monday and spent all day Tuesday discussing the case before announcing the verdict shortly after 2 p.m. PDT Thursday. They didn't deliberate on Wednesday.
Prosecutors now must decide whether to drop the misdemeanor charge or pursue another trial.
"This is a major victory," said Paul Mones, one of Lynch's two attorneys. He said it was remarkable because Lynch told the jury he punched the priest several times.
Lynch has said memories of the priest have tormented him for years, and he struggled through nightmares, divorce and other problems. He tried to commit suicide twice.
Prosecutors called Lynch a vigilante and implored the jury not to be swayed by his dramatic testimony describing the horrific ordeal he claims to have endured at the hands of Lindner.
Lynch countered in his testimony that he only wanted the priest to sign a confession and started punching Lindner after the retired priest "leered" at him the same way he looked at Lynch in 1975 during the alleged molestation during a camping trip.
Priest abuse victims and their supporters contributed to Lynch's defense fund and packed the courtroom every day for a trial. Many carried picket signs outside the courthouse decrying the church abuse scandal.
Lynch refused to discuss a plea bargain with prosecutors, even when he was promised he could avoid prison and would serve no more than a year in exchange for a guilty plea.
Prosecutors said they were left with little choice but to take the case to trial and ask the jury to find Lynch guilty of felony assault and felony elder abuse. Lindner was 65 at the time of the beating.
Santa Clara County prosecutor Vicki Gemetti repeatedly told the jury of nine men and three women that she sympathized with Lynch and even conceded Lynch was molested. But Gemetti insisted that even the most unsavory of victims – drug dealers, wife beaters and child molesters – deserved equal protection under the law.
Lindner also testified and denied abusing Lynch. He later invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and would not testify further for fear of a perjury prosecution. The judge ordered Lindner's testimony stricken from the record.
In a deposition in the late 1990s, Lindner said he didn't recall Lynch, who received $625,000 in a 1998 confidential settlement with the Jesuits after alleging the abuse.
Associated Press writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.
A jury has acquitted a man charged with assaulting a retired priest he says molested him more than three decades ago in California.
The jury of nine men and three women returned its verdict Thursday against William Lynch after starting deliberations Monday in San Jose.
Prosecutors say Lynch acted as a vigilante when he pummeled Jerold Lindner with his fists in the 2010 attack. They said Lynch's testimony about his alleged sexual abuse by Lindner was no excuse for beating up the priest years later.
Defense attorneys countered that it was not an act of revenge. Instead, they said Lynch wanted the priest to sign a confession and still felt threatened by him and the memories of the abuse.
Lindner denied on the witness stand that he molested Lynch.
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