Feb. 1 2018 12:10 AM

Prosecutor Siemon could reopen MSU sexual assault cases

The multiple investigations of Michigan State University and its failures to address cases of sexual assault allegedly committed by athletes also involves actions — or inactions by the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office. The agency, which prosecutes felony cases in the county, has denied dozens of cases involving sexual assault and MSU athletes between 2008 and 2017.

Some activists and victims want a review of those cases, but the current prosecutor said she will move cautiously as she approaches the fallout from the Larry Nassar case and an incendiary ESPN report. The sports network ran an investigative piece called “Spartan Silence” last weekend that accused the athletic department at MSU of covering up numerous sexual assaults involving student athletes.

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon acknowledges her office has the power to reopen cases, such as the 2010 sexual assault cases against former MSU basketball players Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, and that she will move in concert with others investigating the university’s actions.

“It’s too soon to say what action I’d take,” said Carol Siemon, who has served as prosecutor for just over a year. “What I am going to do is be part of this discussion, part of working with the entire system in what our response looks like. I think there has been a lot of light shown on a variety of places where we can do better. What that would look like for our office and our review process, and whether I reopen cases, I can’t say that yet. I’m just going to say that I’m going to be part of that discussion and openly look at what needs to be explored.”

During an interview Monday, Siemon said she would cooperate with the recently announced special prosecutor reviewing the situation at Michigan State University. Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, in a rare Saturday press conference in Lansing, announced he had appointed former Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth to the position of special prosecu-During that announcement, Schuette promised the special team he had assembled would investigate “every corner” of MSU as it related to the Nassar scandal. He did not take questions after the press conference.

It is unclear if the probe will also review allegations that the athletic program failed to report sexual assault cases in the past, or that the university failed to properly investigate those cases and seek appropriate criminal charges.

Two politicians previously held the position of Ingham County Prosecutor during the majority of time covered by the reports in question. First was Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, who left office in 2015 after he was arrested on multiple criminal charges stemming from his engagement with sex workers, some of whom were trafficked by other men. His tenure covered the bulk of cases involving MSU athletes, including the controversial case of MSU basketball players Appling and Payne.

The two men, as freshmen, were accused of sexually assaulting Carolyn Schaner in August of 2010. Despite a video recorded interview with investigators in which Payne appears to substantially support Schaner’s detailed allegations, Dunnings declared at the time no crime had been committed and refused to prosecute. Michigan State

University Police sought charges of criminal sexual conduct third degree against both men. Those charges have a 10-year statute of limitations, meaning if Siemon reviews the case and determines there is evidence a crime was committed, she can still file criminal charges.

After Dunnings resigned in July 2016, former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat from Ingham County, served as interim prosecutor for six months until Siemon was elected.

Whitmer is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this year, and has been chastised by political opponents who allege she failed to prosecute Nassar.

Whitmer has countered that the appropriate place to handle the charges against Nassar was through the Attorney General’s Office because his crimes extended across county borders. Bridge Magazine’s fact-checking program has substantiated Whitmer’s claims.

Siemon started her legal career nearly 30 years ago prosecuting sex crimes. She said the legal and social barriers in bringing the cases to court have not changed as much as she had hoped.

“This is something that even before I took office, I started meeting with law enforcement and advocates about how do we do culture change,” she said about sexual assault cases. For Siemon, the issue is one of making sure everyone understands the idea of consent.

“That’s a tough one, because I want to be really clear we’re not talking about blaming the victim, but one of the concerns we have is we have to have the defendant also knowing and the accused knowing, ‘Hey that wasn’t consensual.’ “So often over the decades, I’ve seen situations where I’ve had victims, boys and girls alike, who had said, ‘I didn’t want it to happen, but I don’t think I said anything. I didn’t push him away. I was just laying there thinking, Oh my God, I just want this to be over. I don’t want this to happen.’ That’s some huge disconnect. That’s a huge disconnect where there’s non-consensual sex going on, but it’s not necessarily a kind of interaction that we could charge a criminal in.”

The late MSU journalism professor and advocate for victims in the media, Bonnie Bucqueroux, used to tell reporters that sexual assault may not be a crime fit for prosecution in the courts. Siemon concurs.

“The criminal justice system in the courtroom can be a very appropriate place, but it’s not always the best place,” she said. “It’s the place we have, and we have to work with the forum we have. One of the real struggles is that the criminal justice system is an adversarial system, it’s a finger-pointing system, it’s a system where you can say, ’Hey, in my gut I know that something bad happened here, but there may not be a remedy under the law.’”

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