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Three USC Players Are Acquitted in Assault Case : Verdict: Some jurors say they didn't believe the alleged victim's account of attack in dormitory.

June 15, 1991|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an emotional ending to a nearly yearlong ordeal, three USC football players were found not guilty of misdemeanor charges that they had dragged a female graduate student into a dormitory room and sexually assaulted her.

The verdict, announced Friday in Los Angeles Municipal Court, was greeted with hugs and cheers by family and friends of defendants Michael Jones, Willie McGinest and Jason Oliver.

As soon as the players left their court seats they were greeted by Chris Allen, USC's defensive coordinator, who was accompanied by backfield coach Bob Cope.

Most members of the 12-person jury stayed more than an hour outside the courtroom, hugging and shaking hands with the defendants and their families.

Jurors interviewed afterward said they had not believed the woman's account of the events of July 20. They said there was no corroboration from the other witnesses.

The woman, a peer counselor in a remedial summer program designed for incoming freshmen, alleged that she was dragged into Jones' room in USC's Pardee Tower and pinned to a bed. She alleged that she was held for almost half an hour, even though a male counselor walked into the room at one point.

The players, however, denied that they had forced her into the room and sexually molested her.

The woman, who has left USC, had testified that she had considered not reporting the incident because of personal problems. In 1988, her father was killed in an auto accident in Saudi Arabia, and her sister died in an airliner that was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, by a terrorist bomb.

"I really tried to put myself in her position to give her the benefit of the doubt, but when so many things that she said came in conflict with what other people had seen . . . I think maybe her perception was different than what really happened that night," said juror Dawn Shinew, a teacher from Pasadena.

"Something may have happened, but I don't think we will ever know what."

The jurors became so close during the five-week trial that they coordinated the color of their clothing each day.

Friday, they were clad in black and white, and perhaps that signified the simplicity of their decision. Many characterized the prosecution's case as weak.

Alex R. Kessel, who represented McGinest without pay, said he hopes the verdict will serve as a resolution. But the players are expected to face a university student-conduct hearing within 45 days, said James M. Dennis, vice president of student affairs. Administrators said they wanted to wait for the trial to end before conducting their hearings.

"One of my concerns is that (Athletic Director) Mike McGee and others in the SC athletic department put a lot of credence into this verdict," Kessel said.

Kessel is concerned because of a letter McGee wrote that essentially warned the players that if they were caught lying to the police about the incident, they would be suspended from the team.

Court testimony indicated that Jones and perhaps McGinest lied to a Los Angeles Police Department detective during interrogations in July. But defense attorneys said the players were under undue pressure from the detective and USC authorities at the time, and that their statements should be discounted.

Kessel called McGee's letter a veiled threat, adding that McGee wanted to suspend the players from the beginning. However, Kessel said, football Coach Larry Smith was instrumental in supporting the defendants.

Smith said in a statement Friday: "The three players contended all along that they were innocent, and I'm pleased that the court found that to be the case."

Oliver stood away from the crush of reporters and well-wishers outside the court, reflecting on a scene that resembled a victorious locker room. It was a poignant moment for Oliver, who said he was thinking only of his mother and father, both of whom died last fall.

"They brought up all the turmoil (the woman) was going through," he said. "I could understand that, but . . . I'm facing the same thing, except within this year, and I'm only 19."

Oliver said he will go home to Bakersfield to be with his brother, Clinton, 10, whom he has not seen since the trial started. Clinton is living with relatives.

"I really have to turn myself into a role model for him to make sure I help him out," Oliver said. "I'm more than a brother now. I'm a parent. He's going to face some hard times, too, so he needs to understand exactly what went on here. I learned that watching 'People's Court' isn't the same as this."

Jones, who stood with his mother, Mary, and brothers Greg and Demetrius, said the trial had been unnerving.

"It was racial and prejudice against us being student athletes," he said. "We had to live with people saying we're rapists, sexual molesters and stuff like that."

James E. Blatt defended Jones without pay. Blatt's son Jason, a member of the University of Colorado football team, played at Montclair Prep with Jones.

"I didn't want to see three young men's lives destroyed because of a rush to judgment by the city attorney's office," Blatt said. "This should have never come to trial."

George Lomeli, a deputy city attorney, said he was surprised by the verdict, adding that he could not have presented any other evidence to the jury.

"I think that (the woman) has to be commended," he said. "She believed in something, pursued it.

"I think (USC) could have done things in their procedure that would have prevented this kind of situation. I hope they take those steps in the future."

Times staff writer Jerry Crowe contributed to this story.

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