Jury acquits Gophers Watson, Toussaint in sexual assault trial

Joanna Dornfeld

For the first time during their weeklong trial, the stoic facades of two University football players charged with first- and third-degree sexual assault crumbled when the jury acquitted the men of all charges.

After approximately two hours of deliberation Dec. 18, the jury found Steven Watson and Mackenzy Toussaint innocent of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old University student July 6 in a University Village apartment.

Third-degree sexual assault involves penetration through force or coercion. First-degree sexual assault charges usually involve injuries to the victim but were filed in this case under a two-or-more-perpetrators provision.

Watson wiped his eyes as the forewoman read the verdict. Toussaint held his head in his hands while his mother cried in the courtroom.

Members of Toussaint’s family clapped as the jury filed out of the courtroom.

“It was a clean-cut case, but you’re always afraid you’re going to lose it,” said Joe Friedberg, Watson’s attorney.

Hennepin County prosecutor Karel Moersfelder declined to comment.

“We’re disappointed with the verdict, but we respect the jury’s decision,” said Peter Cahill, chief deputy court attorney for criminal divisions.

The prosecution’s case depended on the alleged victim’s testimony. Over two days on the stand, the woman recounted the events of July 6.

She said she was forced to perform oral sex on Toussaint and said Watson penetrated her with his fingers.

“Considering him my friend, I didn’t think he would do that to me,” the alleged victim testified. “‘No’ is ‘no,’ it doesn’t matter how it is asked.”

The defense attacked the woman’s credibility from a number of angles, arguing the alleged sexual acts were consensual. The judge allowed the inclusion of the alleged victim’s sexual history as evidence.

The woman testified she performed oral sex on Toussaint earlier in the semester and said she could not remember if she and Watson had participated in a sexual act earlier that year.

The prosecution argued the alleged victim’s sexual history was irrelevant.

“We had opposed the (inclusion of the alleged) victim’s prior sexual history and the judge allowed that,” Cahill said.

The prosecution presented two people, who were in contact with the woman after the alleged attack, to testify about her mental state.

During cross-examination, the alleged victim said she has contacted a lawyer to sue the University.

The defense also attacked University police Detective Patricia Gjerde, claiming she was biased toward the alleged victim.

During her testimony, Gjerde said the woman told her during questioning that she didn’t want to take the complaint any further. The alleged victim’s request was not mentioned on Gjerde’s report to the county attorney, the defense said.

The defense also argued Gjerde neglected to gather key evidence such as the woman’s dress and underwear.

The defense’s first witness was University football player Thomas Tapeh. The alleged July 6 events occurred in his University Village apartment. Tapeh testified that he did not notice anything unusual when he walked in on the alleged victim and Watson.

The defense also called University basketball player Tanisha Gilbert to the stand. Gilbert testified she overheard the woman bragging about a sexual encounter with Watson and Toussaint.

“She had been with Steven and Mackenzy, and it had been a threesome,” Gilbert testified. “It wasn’t like it was a cry for help.”

The defense’s final witness was University freshman John Dial. Dial testified he was the alleged victim’s friend, but said he did not know Toussaint and had met Watson in a class last fall.

“No, I don’t think she has told the truth in this matter,” Dial said. “At times she has been known to twist the truth.”

Earl Gray, Toussaint’s attorney, said the jury “reached the only verdict they could on that evidence.”

Under their lawyers’ advisement, Watson and Toussaint did not testify.

Student life director Robert Jones has not decided whether Watson and Toussaint can return to the football team, said University spokeswoman Amy Phenix.

Jones has not set a timeline to make a decision.

Phenix was unable to comment about whether the University will investigate academic dishonesty allegations made during the trial.

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]