Criminal Sexual Conduct Cases In Minnesota

Many people cringe at hearing about a “not guilty” verdict in a criminal sexual conduct case. (“Criminal Sexual Conduct” is a category of crimes that includes what traditionally has been called “rape,” but also includes miscellaneous other sex-related crimes.)

However, are you aware that in Minnesota it is not necessary to have corroboration of the accuser’s story in order to have someone criminally charged and even convicted? Minn. Stat. 609.347, subd. 1(the testimony of a victim need not be corroborated) see also State v. Ani, 257 N.W.2d 699 (Minn. 1977). “Corroboration” is other evidence which tends to support one person’s accusation.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent case where a seemingly stable woman faked her own abduction to get attention from her boyfriend and for only God knows what other reason. Audrey Seiler of Rockford, Minnesota disappeared from her campus apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 27, 2004, and was missing for four days-she later confessed to staging the entire event). Perhaps she lacked attention and power in life and faking her own abduction was a way to get more attention /or power in her life. A person might cry wolf and then not be able to back away from their original made-up story due to embarrassment or fear of criminal charges for filing a false police report.

Many of you work or have close contact with troubled youth or troubled people in general. If someone were to falsely accuse you of criminal sexual conduct you could be charged criminally. Never mind that you don’t have criminal record and that you have a stellar reputation. Sex crimes are often aggressively prosecuted by prosecutors.

Not only could you face the expense of attorney’s fees if charged with “criminal sexual conduct” but if convicted you would face years of imprisonment, up to life, having to register as a sex offender, having to give your DNA to state agencies, and having a felony criminal record, loss of civil rights, including gun ownership. In addition, if you’re not a United States citizen you could be deported.

You cannot be convicted of a sex crime unless the prosecutor convinces a jury that there is evidence, proving beyond any reasonable doubts, each of the elements of criminal sexual conduct. The prosecutor would, however, point out to the jury (and legally they can) that if they believe the “victim” that is enough “evidence” to allow them find the defendant (you) guilty. In other words, you could be convicted on nothing more than the word of any person who chooses to accuse you.

Corroboration of a person’s word should be required by the law, especially in light of the many recent cases of convicted “sex offenders” being freed on DNA evidence. (In State v. Ani, 257 N.W.2d 699 (Minn. 1977), the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that the jury being able to evaluate the credibility of a witness is sufficient to safeguard the accused’s due process rights). Through the work of volunteers with The Innocence Project, and others, a surprisingly large number of persons convicted by juries and courts “beyond a reasonable doubt” of sex crimes before the advent of DNA evidence, have since been proven “actually innocent” by DNA evidence from the crime scene. In the United States, as of June of 2002, 108 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence, 12 of whom were on death row.) See, (DNA evidence has been used to free a number of men in prison for sexual assault including 12 in 1992 and 28 in the next two years) Butterfield, F. (1996). DNA tests will get wider use as a nationwide database is developed. The News Observer Raleigh, Nc, P. A9. These can be emotional cases, prone to error. And, eyewitness testimony has been proven to be some of the least reliable evidence in court cases. Therefore, a change in the law, to require corroboration of an accuser’s testimony is essential.

Under the current laws, as inadequate as they are, what is a person to do? You generally can’t tell by looking at them whether a person may be likely to make a false allegation of sexual abuse or illegal sexual conduct. But, if you work with apparently troubled people (the woman who faked her own abduction seemed so stable to all), try to have other people around when you deal with “high risk” people. If reasonable, have a camera or audio recorder running. Please remember should you serve on a jury, that requiring the government to show proof of guilt beyond all reasonable doubts is a very important standard that should be honored by all. Who doesn’t want dangerous sex offenders behind bars? However, innocent people do get, and can be convicted when a jury doesn’t require the prosecutor to show with evidence, without a doubt, that the defendant intentionally did the prohibited act.

Kristine Zajac is an attorney in downtown Minneapolis. Zajac concentrates her practice in criminal and family law.

She has a winning record with respect to jury trials concerning criminal sexual conduct.