Ex-basketball coach loses child seduction appeal

A former Mishawaka High School assistant girls basketball coach failed to persuade the Indiana Court of Appeals to reverse his child seduction conviction for a sexual relationship he had with a 17-year-old player he had coached since at least Grade 8.

Mark Benner was convicted by a St. Joseph Superior Court jury of Class C and Class D felony counts of child seduction in August 2018, five years after a sexual relationship between him and the player had begun. Benner received an aggregate 5½-year sentence, all of which was suspended to probation.

The sexual relationship started months after Benner had resigned as an assistant girls varsity basketball coach at Mishawaka, but while he continued to coach the player individually to help her get a college basketball scholarship, according to the record. However, Mishawaka’s former varsity girls coach Kevin Gradeless had months earlier been made aware of concerning text messages between Benner and the player, which were investigated and found to be basketball-related. No formal action was taken at the time.

The sexual relationship between the then-43-year-old Benner and the 17-year-old player ended when Benner accidentally sent a text message intended for the player to his daughter, who was a friend of the player.

On appeal, Benner argued the evidence against him was not sufficient to support the conviction in Mark Benner v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2614. But Senior Judge Carr Darden wrote for the panel that affirmed the conviction that Gradeless testified at trial that Benner “gave more individual attention” to the player than he did to other players and that “even before he told the rest of the team, Benner went to (the player’s) home to privately inform her of his resignation … and it was then that he kissed” her. The sexual relationship commenced shortly thereafter.

The panel rejected Benner’s argument that the fact that he was no longer employed by Mishawaka High School at the time meant he did not abuse a position of trust earning the enhanced Class C felony count.

“Considering the totality of the facts and circumstances, the evidence firmly establishes Benner’s use of his professional coach-player relationship with (the player) as a conduit for establishing a sexual relationship with her,” the panel concluded.

The panel also noted that the issue of whether Benner could be considered “employed” for purposes of the child seduction statute had been addressed in his prior unsuccessful interlocutory appeal, Benner v. State, 71A03-1607-CR-1609 (Ind. Ct. App. July 27, 2017), trans. denied, that sought to have the charges dismissed.

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