US teacher denies abuse in semen case
Los Angeles - A former US teacher pleaded not guilty to lewd acts with children on Tuesday for allegedly photographing blindfolded students with cockroaches on their faces, and spoons of semen to their mouths.
Mark Berndt's lawyer added that the 61-year-old was at risk of harm in prison, with "a bull's eye on his head" after fellow inmates were told about his alleged crimes and his location.
Berndt, who taught for more than 30 years at an elementary school in east Los Angeles, denied multiple charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children aged between seven and 10 years old at the time.
He remains in jail in lieu of $23m bail - and his lawyer lashed out at what he said were actions which put his client at risk from other prisoners.
"The sheriff's department in Twin Towers [prison], which is where my client is currently housed, has essentially used the speaker system, the loud speaker system, to identify him as a child molester to other inmates," he said.
"We cannot have the sheriff's department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a bull's eye on his head, so to speak... My understanding is that it did name the particular dorm where he was at," he added.
Hand over mouth
Berndt was removed from teaching duty as soon as the allegations surfaced in January 2011, after more than 40 photos of children in a classroom, with blindfolds and tape covering their mouths, were reported by a film processor.
The teacher had his arm around the children or a hand over their mouths, according to a statement by the LA Sheriff's Department.
Some of the photos "depicted girls with what appeared to be a blue plastic spoon, filled with an unknown clear/white liquid substance, up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance", it said.
DNA tests concluded the substance was Berndt's semen. "There are also photos of children with large live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths," said the statement.
More than 100 similar photos were found at his home, while police also recovered "a DVD of film depicting adult sexual bondage activity which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children".
Entire staff replaced
Sheriff Department spokesperson Dan Scott said detectives later found about 250 other photos at the film-processing business. More than 26 children were identified in 390 photos, but about 10 have not been identified.
More than 80 current and former students and school employees were interviewed during the investigation, while the entire staff of the school was replaced.
Berndt's lawyer said he was concerned for his client's safety.
"Anyone accused of these charges who is in the custody of the sheriff's department always runs the risk of their personal safety, for obvious reasons," he said.
Berndt is due back in court on March 28, when a date will be set for a hearing to decide if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. He could face life in jail if convicted.