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Baseball coach convicted of two lesser counts

9/15/2006

UNIONTOWN, Pa. -- A baseball coach accused of offering an
8-year-old money to bean an autistic teammate so he couldn't play
was convicted Thursday of two lesser charges against him, and
evaded more serious charges.

A jury convicted 29-year-old Mark R. Downs Jr. of corruption of
minors and criminal solicitation to commit simple assault, Fayette
County authorities said.

Downs was acquitted of criminal solicitation to commit
aggravated assault, and jurors said they were deadlocked on a
charge of reckless endangerment. The judge declared a mistrial on
the endangerment charge.

Authorities said Downs offered to pay one of his T-ball players $25 to
hit a 9-year-old autistic teammate with a ball while warming up
before a June 2005 playoff game.

The verdict means the jury believed that Downs asked his player
to hurt his teammate, but that the jury did not feel that the
autistic boy -- who suffered bruises and an infected ear -- suffered
"serious bodily injury," District Attorney Nancy Vernon said.
Aggravated assault and reckless endangerment both require
authorities to prove that serious bodily injury occurred or was
intended to occur.

"Certainly, the bruising on the ear fortunately did not amount
to serious bodily injury," Vernon said. "That's what [the
verdict] boiled down to. It vindicates the fact the little boys,
the jury believed they were telling the truth."

Downs took the stand and denied offering to pay Keith Reese Jr.
to hurt Harry Bowers, his mildly autistic and mildly retarded
teammate.

Earlier in the trial, Reese testified about Downs' offer, saying
he purposely threw a ball that hit Bowers in the groin, then threw
another ball that hit him in the ear on Downs' instructions. Bowers
also testified about being hit by the balls Reese threw during
pregame warmups.

Reese's father, Keith Sr., testified that Downs acknowledged
after the game that he did something "ignorant" and confessed to
the deed. When Downs called the elder Reese a liar during his
testimony Wednesday, Reese shouted back "You're a liar,"
prompting the judge to restore order.

Jury forewoman Michele Lynn, a 28-year-old medical office
manager, said the jury believed that Downs told his player to harm
his teammate, but they didn't believe his injuries were serious
enough to warrant the aggravated assault and reckless endangerment
charges.

"I myself didn't believe he caused any serious bodily harm,"
Lynn said.

The jury didn't believe Downs, in part, because doing so would
have required them to believe that all of the prosecution witnesses,
including the two boys, were lying.

"His whole demeanor was flat, he was inexpressive," Lynn said
of Downs. "That led me to believe he was not telling the truth. He
would corrupt any young children's morals."

Downs, the boys, and their families left the courtroom without
commenting, but Downs' attorney, Thomas Shaffer, promised to
appeal.

Shaffer said he believes Judge Ralph Warman erred by not letting
him call a witness who would have testified that Reese's stepmother
called the whole incident "a misunderstanding."

"In reality, the truth did not come out," Shaffer said.

The maximum sentence for the Downs' crimes is five years in
prison, but under Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines he likely
faces only probation when he's sentenced Oct. 12 because he is not
known to have a criminal record. Vernon said she will not argue for
a particular sentence, leaving the matter entirely to the judge's
discretion.

"This is a serious breach of sportsmanlike conduct," Vernon said.