Etienne Kabongo Credit: File photo

A jury will decide next month if a former Montgomery County Public Schools bus driver charged with sexually assaulting four students in 2018 is criminally responsible for his actions.

Etienne Kabongo, 64, was charged in August 2018 with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl a month earlier, an act that authorities said was caught on the bus’s surveillance camera.

Kabongo was later charged with sexually assaulting three other students on the bus. Some of the students Kabongo assaulted, prosecutors have said, have special needs.

Kabongo pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness in Montgomery County Circuit Court last month. He is scheduled to have a four-day trial starting March 17 to determine whether he is criminally responsible.

During a hearing Thursday afternoon, defense attorney Jim Shalleck told Circuit Court Judge David Lease that he wanted to have a jury decide the case next month. In an interview after the hearing, Shalleck said he preferred a jury over a judge because jurors would be the “best finders of fact” in this case.

“I’ve always believed juries have common sense and follow the judges’ instructions. I have faith and confidence in juries,” he said.

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Shalleck has tried to enter a not criminally responsible plea for his client since January 2019. That month a state psychiatric exam found that Kabongo was competent to stand trial.

Shalleck tried to have Kabongo evaluated again, but failed to find a doctor.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Greenberg ruled in July that Kabongo was competent to stand trial, but said Shalleck could submit an outside evaluation of Kabongo for future consideration. The most recent evaluation, conducted by Dr. Fred Berlin, determined that Kabongo has mental illness, Shalleck said.

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If the jury finds Kabongo criminally responsible next month, he could face up to 40 years in prison, Shalleck said in a previous interview.

Lease, during Thursday’s hearing, said the voir dire, or jury selection process, would likely start on March 13. He anticipated that about 35 possible jurors would be interviewed.

Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Rubinstein responded by asking for a larger jury pool because media coverage  the case has received might bias many potential jurors. Lease said he would consult the jury commissioner to determine the appropriate jury pool size.

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Shalleck, after the hearing, said he agreed with having a larger jury pool.

During the hearing, Shalleck said he plans to call Berlin as a witness during the trial. Rubinstein said the state’s attorney’s office would likely have eight to 10 witnesses.

Rubinstein said in court that the defense would call witnesses first in the trial because the burden of proof is on the defense to show that Kabongo is not criminally responsible through a preponderance of evidence.

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Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com