Jury hung in Questa coach rape trial

Seven jurors say 'guilty,' five 'not guilty'

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John Rael, a former coach with Questa School District who was accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in 2016, walked away from Taos district court this week after a jury failed to come to a unanimous decision on his case.

The 12-person jury had spent less than a day deliberating before notifying the court of its indecision.

When presiding Judge Jeff McElroy asked on Friday (May 18) whether more time might break the deadlock, not a single juror raised their hand.

Jurors had pored over evidence presented throughout the two-day trial late into Thursday night (May 17) and continued through Friday morning. They reviewed the emotional testimony the now 16-year-old victim and her parents gave during the trial, along with a defense presented meticulously by Rael’s attorney, Alan Maestas, who sought to cast doubts as to the girl’s allegations.

On the first day of trial, the 16-year-old told the courtroom that she had become friends with Rael, who lived near her family’s home in Questa. She had worked for Rael in exchange for a small wage. On June 9, 2016, she said Rael asked her to accompany him to fix a leak at The Veterans of Foreign Wars office in Questa.

There, she said, Rael had raped her.

At the center of his defense, Maestas relied on a lie detector test that Rael had passed, slight variations in the victim’s story and the absence of evidence, including DNA, cell phone data and a journal the victim said had contained a record of the alleged rape.

He pointed out that the victim’s family had waited five months before reporting the incident. Maestas argued they had done so as a reaction to their daughter’s suspension from sports with the Questa School system, where Rael had volunteered as a coach.

Maestas also called Rael’s wife to the witness stand. She gave an account of Rael’s movements the day of the alleged rape, describing a situation that contradicted the victim’s allegations.

According to Tim Hasson, a prosecutor with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, however, the wife’s story was too perfectly constructed to be true.

Maestas examined a polygraph testing professional on the stand, asking him to painstakingly describe how Rael’s exam had been conducted; all the while, the defendant’s passing results were displayed on monitors in the courtroom.

During closing arguments, Hasson attempted to persuade the jury of the controversial nature of such tests, noting that several states do not allow polygraph tests to be presented as evidence in criminal cases.

Maestas argued that too many pieces of evidence were missing to convict.

Ultimately, the dueling litigators produced a divided jury, with seven finding Rael guilty and five finding him not guilty.

The case is tentatively set to return to court on June 19.

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