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Coach who ‘drop-kicked’ boy gets no jail time, but boy’s father does

BY PAMELA GOULD

The Ni River Middle School volunteer coach who “drop-kicked” a seventh-grader will serve no time behind bars, but the boy’s father—who punched the coach in response—was ordered Wednesday to spend a day in jail.

Juvenile Court Judge Phillip U. Fines reduced the charge against coach Joseph Bernard Hart from a felony to a misdemeanor at the request of defense attorney Mark Gardner.

Wednesday’s hearing dealt with the felony charge against Hart, 21, and the misdemeanor assault and battery charge against Maurice Smith, 43, at the request of Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney John C. Bowers.

Hart had faced up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted of felony cruelty and injuries to a child.

The charge reflects that Hart, as a volunteer coach with the Spotsylvania County school, was in a custodial relationship with 12-year-old Devon Smith at the time of the incident.

Devon and three other boys on the Ni River football team testified Wednesday that Hart “drop-kicked” Devon while he was standing on the sidelines at football practice on Oct. 16.

They testified that it was without provocation and Devon didn’t know it was coming.

Devon, who at the time was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 90 pounds, testified that someone tapped him on the shoulder and he turned to see Hart running at him.

Hart—who has a stocky build—flew through the air with both legs raised and struck him in the chest with both feet.

“I flew back in the air and my feet left the ground and I don’t remember when I hit the ground,” Devon testified.

He said he passed out and when he came to, he “couldn’t breathe and my chest was in severe pain.”

Devon said no one rendered aid to him. His parents took him to the emergency room after practice, where he underwent several tests and received pain medication.

Teammates James Malone, Carter Searcy and Justin Curran testified Wednesday that Hart was known for “horseplay” and that they didn’t think Devon passed out, but was hurt and had the wind knocked out of him.

They had heard Hart speak before about “drop-kicking” someone but he had never done it.

Ni River Principal Veronne Davis said she spoke to Hart twice after the incident and that he didn’t think Devon was hit hard.

“He felt like he had barely tapped him,” she testified.

Hart was to be dismissed as a coach after the incident but quit on Oct. 17. The school division then barred him from coming onto any county school property.

Wilderness Elementary teacher Jennifer Knutsson testified that she had driven to Ni River to pick up her son from football practice when she saw Maurice Smith arrive back at school.

Hart was sitting on the curb at an open parking space when Smith approached him angrily, she said.

“He punched him and pushed him on the ground,” she said.

She said the two were chest to chest for a while and that Hart then went to Smith’s car, where Devon was sitting, and Smith followed him, still agitated.

Hart testified that when Smith first approached, he didn’t know who he was or why he was upset.

He later went toward the car to apologize to Devon.

Bowers argued that Hart “willfully endangered [Devon’s] life” and that “the blow” from the kick was “severe.”

He called it “a serious assault” that “is felonious” and suggested Hart receive jail time, but something less than two months to serve.

“The court’s decision today will send the message to the community about the responsibility of teachers and coaches for the children in their charge,” Bowers said.

Gardner argued for leniency, saying that Hart had attention deficit disorder, poor impulse control and “probably shouldn’t have been in that position” as a coach.

He also noted that a felony conviction would prevent him from his lifelong goal of becoming a firefighter.

His father, William E. “Chip” Hart, is chief of the county’s emergency management division. He was present in court.

Fines reduced the charge to misdemeanor assault and battery and gave Hart a 10-day suspended sentence. He also ordered 30 hours of community service to be completed by April 30 in a field other than fire and rescue.

Maurice Smith pleaded no contest to assault and battery, and despite arguments from defense attorney Vernon Keeve and prosecutor Bowers to have the disposition delayed, Fines found him guilty.

He then sentenced him to 10 days in jail with one day to serve plus 30 hours of community service to be completed by April 30.

Smith is appealing the conviction and was to be released pending appeal.

His wife, Stephanie Smith, called the outcome an injustice. She also said her son has lost weight since the incident, his grades have fallen, he can’t sleep and he is in counseling.

She said the family’s insurance won’t pay his medical bills because the injuries were the result of a crime.

Bowers said he wanted Hart to pay restitution but the judge wouldn’t order it because Bowers hadn’t prepared evidence.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

pgould@freelancestar.com

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