Sexual Assault Jurisprudence: A Story of State-by-State Judicial Inconsistencies
Thomas Bertron | May 2021
Minneapolis, MN, the city where the assault leading to Minnesota v. Khalil took place
his past March, the Supreme Court of Minnesota issued a ruling in the case of State of Minnesota v. Francis Momolu Khalil that overturned a felony conviction in the case of an intoxicated woman who had been raped. This ruling upset many, as it granted the assailant a new trial. However, the fact pattern of this case needs to be analyzed to better understand the ruling and its legal implications. Additionally, the fact patterns of two other cases that occurred in the Midwest can be analyzed to show how each of the states’ respective justice system decides cases.
On the night of March 13, 2017, the victim, a female identified as J.S. in the court decision, had 5 shots of vodka, along with a prescription pill. Along with a friend, the victim traveled to a bar in Dinkytown, a neighborhood in Minneapolis. However, she was denied entry to the bar on account of being visibly intoxicated. At this point, Khalil, the assailant, along with two other men, approached J.S. and her friend and invited them to attend a party. The two women agreed, and got into a car driven by Khalil. However, Khalil did not drive them to a party, but instead to a house in the northern part of Minneapolis. When J.S. entered the house, she passed out on a couch; by her own admission she “blacked out.” She stated she woke up later to find Khalil sexually penetrating her, to which she did not consent. Despite this lack of consent, he did not stop, and she passed out again. On May 18, 2017, she reported the incident to the police; Khalil was subsequently arrested.
At trial, the state initially charged Khalil with one count of third degree sexual assault, stating that his conduct involved an assault on a “mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant.” Before the jury deliberated on the verdict, the district court instructed them that Khalil had a reason to believe the victim was mentally incapacitated. Upon request from the jury, the court explained its definition of “mentally incapacitated” to mean that she was “under the ‘influence of alcohol… administered herself or… a narcotic J.S. administered herself or a thing administered [without] her agreement.” Due to this interpretation, Khalil was found guilty of third degree criminal sexual assault. Upon appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the conviction. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
Justice Thissen of the Minnesota Supreme Court, in his ruling, cited Minnesota statute 609.341, subdivision 7, to overturn Khalil’s conviction. The statute stated that to be considered mentally incapacitated under Minnesota law, the victim could not have become voluntarily intoxicated with alcohol. Additionally, under Minnesota statute 609.344, subdivision 1(d), the state needed to prove that Khalil knew, or had reason to believe, that the victim was mentally incapacitated. Justice Thissen held that the State had not met this burden, and thus Khalil’s charge was overturned and he was awarded a new trial.
Other Cases: Ohio and Oklahoma
While each state has their own laws and statues to which they adhere, it is interesting to note that similar cases have occurred in other states, yet ended with a different result. On August 11, 2012, a high school girl, identified as Jane Doe, was raped in Steubenville, Ohio while heavily intoxicated. The perpetrators who committed the crime were Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two members of the Steubenville High School football team. They were each charged with digitally penetrating her while she was not in a state of mind to give consent. Under Ohio law, this is considered rape. Trent Mays was given a two-year sentence in Ohio’s juvenile system, while Richmond was given a sentence of at least one year.
While this case and the Minnesota case are from different states, it is interesting to note that in both instances the victim was heavily intoxicated and had not been in a position to affirm consent. However, Khalil was provided with a new trial due to Minnesota’s definition of the term “mentally incapacitated.” Yet in the Steubenville case, it didn’t matter if the victim was voluntarily intoxicated; her assailants were still convicted under Ohio law for engaging in sexual activity without her consent.
Nonetheless, there have been cases that ended in a manner similar to that in Minnesota. Take State of Oklahoma v. R.Z.M for example, an Oklahoma case decided on March 24th, 2016. In R.Z.M, a 17-year-old male had originally been charged with two counts: rape in the first degree or alternatively in the second degree, and forcible oral sodomy, on April 16th, 2015. His accusation stemmed from the alleged assault of an intoxicated and unconscious 16-year-old girl. However, the count of rape in the first or second degree was dismissed on July 1th, 2015, before the trial started, and so the alleged assailant was only accused of forcible oral sodomy. Yet even then, the defendant R.Z.M. filed a motion to dismiss the case on November 30th, 2015, which was granted.
The State appealed the decision, but the Court of Appeals held that “Forcible Sodomy cannot occur where a victim is so intoxicated as to be completely unconscious at the time of the sexual act of oral copulation.” The court noted that an incorrect instruction to the jury on this issue was the only error the State had made in the trial. Like the case in Minnesota, an error made by the State resulted in the assailant walking away from the crime.
While the recent case in Minnesota has justifiably raised outcries against the ruling, it is not the first time a court has ruled in favor of the perpetrator of what many deem to be sexual assault. However, it is important to note that, de jure, the decisions were not made to protect the perpetrators, but are based on a court’s interpretation of state statute and previous legal interpretations of said laws. Additionally, due to our system of American federalism and differing judicial actions across different states, victims have emerged victorious in cases with similar backgrounds, such as the case in Steubenville.
In an ideal judicial system without gendered biases and negligent judges, the issue boils down to how the applicable law is written and interpreted, and how well the evidence was presented at trial. The highlighted cases provide evidence that certain laws, at least in Minnesota and Oklahoma, may need to be revised by legislators to better enable their judicial systems to prosecute sexual assault cases. Thus, the duty to prevent sexual assault and to tighten existing restrictions falls on state legislatures, who must be vigilant in altering and forming statutes in response to adverse court rulings. In today’s age, whether or not a woman was voluntarily intoxicated should never be an issue that would absolve one of sexual assault.