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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)
A Knox County jury found two former University of Tennessee football players not guilty of rape charges Friday evening.
"I trusted in God. He took care of it," former star UT linebacker A.J. Johnson told reporters outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
In closing arguments earlier Friday, a prosecutor framed for jurors the sole issue they needed to decide as they considered the fate of Johnson and his ex-teammate Michael Williams.
The pair were standing trial on charges they raped a female UT athlete in Johnson's bedroom during a football victory party in November 2014.
"Is (the accuser) locked in a lie or was she locked in a room?" Assistant District Attorney General Leslie Nassios told jurors in Knox County Criminal Court.
That question was at the heart of the aggravated rape case against Johnson and Williams.
She said, they said
The accuser told jurors she didn't object when Johnson, with whom she twice had sex in the months before the party, began having sex with her while her best friend, Anna Lawn, and Williams were in the bedroom.
But, she said, when Lawn left her alone in the room and Williams — who she said had briefly left — returned to the room, Johnson told him to lock the door and both players began raping her.
She testified that she told them no but they persisted.
Defense attorneys Stephen Ross Johnson and David Eldridge, who represent the ex-linebacker and Williams, respectively, contend the accuser voluntarily had sex with both players and only claimed rape once she realized others at the party knew about the encounter. They say she wound up "locked in a lie" that she couldn't undo.
"She never knew it would get this out of control," attorney Johnson told jurors. "She can't turn that back."
Eldridge hammered what he contended is a lack of evidence — forensic proof, eyewitness testimony, incriminating statements — to even support the charges, let alone conviction.
"Our system of justice demands more proof when you're trying to deprive a fellow citizen of their liberty," he said. "Michael Williams has been the subject of false accusations for three and a half years. There is no greater privilege as a citizen than to lift the veil of false accusations."
The trial began last week with four days of jury selection. Testimony began Monday. Although A.J. Johnson had been expected on Thursday to testify, the defense attorneys announced Friday morning they would present no witnesses, including the accused players, arguing Nassios and fellow prosecutor Kyle Hixson had simply failed to prove their case.
Testimony at trial revealed allegations that a Knoxville Police Department liaison to the UT athletics department tipped off then-coach Butch Jones about the investigation just minutes after lead Investigator Tim Riddle notified the agency's command staff about the rape report.
Jones, in turn, alerted Johnson, and Jones and then-Police Chief David Rausch communicated throughout the day of the investigation.
Riddle told jurors he didn't know about those behind-the-scenes phone calls at the time and now contends UT's inclusion and his own boss' leaking of information to Jones hampered the probe and gave the players time to destroy evidence.
Both defense attorneys on Friday in closing arguments mocked the notion of what they called a "vast conspiracy" between KPD and UT. Both also pointed out testimony that the accuser and Lawn wiped their phones clean and ultimately ditched them within a day of each other, while investigators seized Johnson's phone and secured cellphone provider information on Williams' phone. KPD sent preservation letters for the phones of the accuser and Lawn but never followed through with a search warrant.
"The only cell phone that was ever recovered in this case was Mr. Johnson's," attorney Johnson argued. "You have to have a moral certainty (as to guilt). Can your mind rest easily based on the evidence you've heard?"
Nassios countered that it was the defense who was trying to lure jurors away from the key issue in the case — what happened to the accuser in Johnson's bedroom.
"She said no, and they put their hands over her mouth to shut her up," Nassios said. "They didn't want to hear her. They (passed) her back and forth ... She's a thing — not a human being, not a person. She's meat. She had a mouth and a vagina. That's what she was to them ... This was a gang bang. This is rape."
Attorney Johnson countered that the accuser's account often contradicted her own best friend's version of events, and he insisted there is plenty wrong with both their accounts.
He noted, for instance, the accuser testified that after the rape, she collapsed onto the floor and the players left her there with the bedroom door open.
"She said they left her in a crying heap on the floor with the door open — at a party," he said.
"There were people upstairs on the landing and there were people all along the stairs."
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