A former Bellport High School social studies teacher was acquitted Tuesday of rape charges for having sex with an underage student but was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child.
Jonathan Elsalam, 28, of Ridge, was stoic as he heard the jury find him not guilty of two counts of third-degree rape and four counts of third-degree criminal sexual act, but his father sobbed in relief three rows behind him.
Elsalam, who resigned after the monthslong relationship came to light in September 2012, faces a maximum of a year in jail when Suffolk County Court Judge Barbara Kahn sentences him on May 9, the victim's 19th birthday. The verdict ensures that Elsalam will not have to register as a sex offender.
"My client is ecstatic," said defense attorney David Besso of Bay Shore. "I thought it was a fair verdict, on the basis of the evidence."
The rape and criminal sexual act charges were for two of many sexual encounters that Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Kearon said Elsalam and the girl, then 16, had engaged in. The girl testified the first such encounter took place in the backseat of Elsalam's SUV in December 2011, and she identified another specific encounter in May 2012, shortly before she turned 17. Newsday is not identifying her because authorities said she was the victim of a sex crime.
Though a person under the age of 17 cannot legally give consent to sex with an adult, Besso argued that the girl's recollection of when those events happened was vague. He also told jurors in his closing argument last week that although Elsalam should have kept his distance from the girl, she aggressively pursued the relationship and sought criminal charges only after her family filed a $10 million lawsuit against the South Country school district.
Kearon declined to comment after the verdict.
"It would seem to me there should not be any jail time," Besso said. "He's already suffered sufficiently. He'll be punished every day the rest of his life."
On the other hand, Besso said, the girl will do fine.
"She'll be scarred, but she'll move on," Besso said. "She'll have a nice life, and she should. She's a nice person."
Besso said his client was in love with the girl and probably would have married her if the relationship had stayed quiet until after she graduated, but he ended it soon after her senior year started.
"He's learned a significant lesson in his life," Besso said. He added the laws on such sexual encounters may be outdated. "I don't think we can legislate morality as we did in 1965."