MARTINEZ — A jury Friday acquitted on all counts a former Diablo Valley College student employee accused of changing grades.
Benicia resident Erick Martinez could have faced deportation to his native Guatemala if convicted. But after deliberating for a little more than a day, jurors in Contra Costa County Superior Court said the DVC records office was so haphazard that prosecutors were unable to prove who changed which grades.
"Everything at the college was in such chaos that we didn't feel there was enough proof," said juror Rosella Kerr of Antioch. "How could you find anyone guilty?"
Martinez cried and held his face in his hands as the court clerk confirmed "not guilty" verdicts on each of the nine felony counts. Martinez, a legal U.S. resident but not a citizen, could have spent more than eight years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Prosecutors had offered Martinez a deal that would have allowed him to spend time in home detention, but he said he turned it down because he was innocent.
"I'm not afraid of anything," he said after the verdict. "I'm not hiding anything."
The 35-year-old Martinez, who said his only plan is to focus on running his Benicia decor shop, was one of more than 50 people charged with felonies in the case, which involved hundreds of grades changed over six years. Although most defendants were accused of exchanging money for improved grades, prosecutor Dodie Katague argued that Martinez was interested only in improving his own transcripts and those of his friends.
Testimony and evidence showed DVC records-office employees — many of them students — routinely left computers unsecured when they went out of the office. Dozens of workers at the Pleasant Hill campus were authorized to access grade-changing software, despite accreditors' warnings about grade security in 2002, four years before the scam was uncovered.
"With what was going on at DVC, it definitely left some reasonable doubt," Katague said. "I think he definitely got away with the perfect crime."
The three-week trial was the first stemming from the grade changes, which led to one of the largest criminal academic-fraud cases in history. Several students were expelled or had degrees rescinded, and state legislators recently approved a law aimed at preventing such scandals.
Three ringleaders and several other participants in the cash-for-grades scheme pleaded guilty and agreed to help prosecutors in exchange for more lenient sentences. Another accused ringleader, Ronald Nixon, has not been found, and several cases are pending.
The Martinez verdict probably won't affect other cases, Katague said.
"This case is different," he said. "This was its own separate conspiracy."
The prosecution relied too much on evidence gleaned from other defendants, said Martinez's attorney, public defender Karen Moghtader.
"Who knows whether there are other innocent people who have been charged," she said.
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or email@example.com.