Andersen gets split decision

by Tom Lopez

Andrew Tellijohn

After everyone else had gone home for the weekend, the only people left at the Hennepin County Courthouse on Friday night were three reporters, two attorneys, a few judicial officials and Puiassance Andersen, who was awaiting the most important decision in his life.
And the verdict was that he was guilty on four counts: three for aiding and abetting aggravated robbery and one for aiding and abetting burglary in the first degree. He was acquitted on six charges of aiding and abetting criminal sexual conduct.
The charges against Andersen stemmed from the October robbery of an apartment complex near Dinkytown where three female University students were living. During the incident, two of the women were raped.
Andersen will be sentenced May 9. His brother Giezwa and cousin Antonio Burton also face charges in the incident.
Victor Porter, an acquaintance of the three men who was also charged, pleaded guilty to one count of burglary and agreed to testify against the others in exchange for having all other charges against him dropped. If the prosecution thinks he testified honestly, he will be sentenced to one year in the Hennepin County Workhouse.
Even though Andersen was acquitted of aiding and abetting criminal sexual conduct, prosecuting attorney Steve Redding said he was happy with the outcome of the case, considering the state of the evidence. Redding admitted the proof of Andersen’s involvement in the sexual assaults were the weakest part of the state’s case.
“I think he was in the room (in which the women were raped),” he said. “But we didn’t have the evidence to put him there.”
Redding said if the state had testimony from Giezwa Andersen or Burton, the evidence would have been stronger. However, that would have meant giving one of them a lighter sentence, such as Porter’s case. “And we didn’t want to do that,” he said.
Instead, the state relied on circumstantial evidence to place Andersen at the scene of the crime.
However, the jury’s split verdict left defense attorney Paul Schneck visibly frustrated.
“I don’t think there was sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Schneck said after the verdict was announced. “But the jury has spoken and that’s the way the system works.
“I think they did the right thing on the criminal sexual conduct. It was clear that my client had nothing to do with that.”
Redding said in his closing arguments that the state had presented “a wall of evidence” that proved Andersen was guilty. However, the admittedly circumstantial nature of the evidence was something the jury struggled with, said Gary Wenderoth, the jury’s foreman.
“Our biggest challenge was trying to make sure he was there (at the scene of the crime),” he said. “There was no direct evidence that placed him there.”
Wenderoth said the jury deliberated on the matter for nine hours before members were able to agree that Andersen was in fact there.
One problem, the foreman said, was the testimony the state presented from its key witness, Victor Porter. Wenderoth said potential ulterior motives made his testimony highly questionable.
“We didn’t base much at all on what (Porter) said,” Wenderoth said. “We didn’t feel he was very credible.”
Although the jury gave more weight to the testimony given by Rachel Kemptner, an acquaintance of Andersen who went with two suspects to sell stolen stereo equipment at a pawn shop, Wenderoth said that her testimony was also questionable. “That’s one of the reasons we had a hard time placing him at the scene of the crime,” he said.
Schneck criticized the testimony during the case, charging that Porter was lying to ensure he would receive his plea bargain agreement. Both he and Kemptner allegedly lied to police and changed their stories numerous times.
Wenderoth said this unreliability decreased the significance that the jury attached to the testimonies. “I think they were counting on (Porter’s) testimony to carry a lot more weight than it did,” he said.
In his closing arguments, Redding addressed Porter’s questionable trustworthiness. “If I were going on vacation and needed someone to house-sit, I certainly wouldn’t call Victor Porter,” he said. However, Redding urged the jury to “look at the whole picture.”
Which, Wenderoth said, is what the jury did. The testimonies were “a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “We didn’t base our decision on any one piece of evidence.”
However, he said the evidence simply wasn’t there, with regard to the six counts of aiding and abetting the sexual assault. “There was nothing to link him to the criminal sexual assault charges,” he said. “We had no direct evidence.”
Redding, who only had two weeks to prepare for this trial after circumstances unrelated to the case made it impossible for assistant county attorney Anne Taylor to continue prosecuting, will have more time before Giezwa Andersen stands trial. Although the trial was previously scheduled to start several days ago, it was postponed until the middle to end of May.
Giezwa Andersen is not in jail, but is currently on house arrest.
Burton, who prosecutors believe committed the assaults, is not pushing for a speedy trial, Redding said. He will face trial no earlier than the end of May.
Redding said the fact that Puiassance Andersen’s case was scheduled first did not have an impact on the results. Nor was the scheduling the result of any strategy. “It’s the luck of the draw,” he said.
In Minnesota, multiple defendants are generally granted separate trials. Redding said one reason for this is that each suspect will use separate defenses. “We knew that there were going to be inconsistent defenses,” he said. “And when you have inconsistent defenses, it’s very difficult to get a joint trial.”