Crime

Chiawana coach on trial for sex attack. Comment triggers mistrial

Mahasse Cornileus, a Chiawana High School coach and paraeducator, remains on paid administrative leave while facing allegations he forced himself on a woman at her Richland retail store.
Mahasse Cornileus, a Chiawana High School coach and paraeducator, remains on paid administrative leave while facing allegations he forced himself on a woman at her Richland retail store. Tri-City Herald

The sex crime trial for a Chiawana High School coach and paraeducator abruptly ended this week after a witness made a snide comment to the jury.

Mahasse Cornileus, 46, is charged in Benton County Superior Court with indecent liberties. The felony charge involves sexual contact by forcible compulsion.

His trial started Monday with jury selection, followed by opening statements and testimony on Tuesday.

But Judge Sam Swanberg declared a mistrial when one of the witnesses was on the stand.

Cornileus was arrested a year ago after it was reported that he had forced himself on a woman at her Richland store. The attack reportedly was caught on store security cameras.

The two reportedly met through a mobile dating app.

Police and prosecutors said Cornileus and the woman had chatted a few times, gone on a lunch date and taken some pictures together, but were not in a dating or sexual relationship.

Then on Sept. 19 at 5:50 p.m., Cornileus allegedly went to her George Washington Way business, locked the store’s front door and “engaged in sexually aggressive and assaulting behavior,” according to court documents.

He pulled off the woman’s clothes and sexually assaulted her against her will, according to court documents.

The woman eventually was able to get away from Cornileus, pull on her clothes and run outside, documents said.

Police allege that Cornileus, when confronted about the attack, denied everything until he was told about the security footage.

Cornileus admitted he heard the woman tell him to stop, adding that he had committed “sexual misconduct,” documents said.

However, Cornileus’ lawyers claim the woman initiated the sex and that he did not force her.

Tuesday mistrial

A witness who knew the woman and may have had a relationship with her was testifying Tuesday afternoon when the attorneys went into a sidebar discussion with the judge.

Sidebar discussions, usually about a legal argument, are on the record with the court stenographer but out of hearing of the jury and others in the courtroom.

So when the witness turned to the jury and made a comment about the delay in his testimony being a “diversion tactic,” there was no official record of it.

However, a detective and Cornileus caught part of the comment, which resulted in the judge stopping testimony and calling each juror in one-by-one for questioning about what they heard.

Some of the jurors said they heard the comment. The defense then requested a mistrial and prosecutors did not object, so Swanberg granted it.

The Richland man started working at Chiawana High in Pasco as an assistant track coach in 2016. He became a paraeducator in 2017.

He’s been on paid administrative leave with an annual salary of about $20,000 pending the outcome of the case, according to the school district and public records.

Cornileus previously spent a decade working as a fitness and track coach in Georgia.

Cornileus’ new trial is Jan. 27. He has been out of custody since posting $50,000 bond last November.

Related stories from Tri-City Herald

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.
  Comments