Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling Fuels Calls to Change Sexual Assault Law
The state Supreme Court tossed out a man’s conviction on a third-degree sexual conduct charge because the woman he was accused of assaulting was “voluntarily intoxicated” at the time.,
On the night of May 13, 2017, a woman consumed five shots of vodka and a prescription narcotic before heading to the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis with a friend. After a bar turned them away, they met three men who invited them to a party.
But there was no party. One of thee men, Francios Momolu Khalil, drove the group to a house in North Minneapolis, arriving early the following morning, where the woman blacked out on a living room couch. She woke up to Mr. Khalil sexually assaulting her. She lost consciousness and awoke later with her shorts around her ankles.
The facts of the case are not in dispute, but last week, nearly four years after the attack, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Mr. Khalil’s conviction on a third-degree criminal sexual conduct charge. The woman, the court said in a unanimous decision, was “voluntarily intoxicated” at the time because she had made the decision to drink, and therefore did not meet the threshold for mental incapacitation under state law.
The ruling, which reversed an appellate court decision and ordered a new trial for Mr. Khalil, has been met with outrage, especially from women’s rights groups and survivors of sexual assault, who noted that the law is applied similarly in about 40 states.
In Minnesota, it has rekindled a campaign to strengthen a statute governing sexual assault, including by expanding the definition of mental incapacitation to say that people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are incapable of consenting to sex.
“The reported facts are horrifying,” said Jill Hasday, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “I think it highlights the need for legislative reform.”
The Minnesota court’s decision hinged on the meaning of “mentally incapacitated” as defined in state law. The court cited a statute that says that someone who is under the influence of alcohol, narcotics or another substance lacks the judgment to consent to sex only if the intoxicating substance was administered without their agreement.
Amy Blagoev, who prosecuted the case for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, said she believed the conviction was based on a correct interpretation of the law.
“The survivor of the sexual assault in this case is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met,” Ms. Blagoev said. “After everything that she has endured, it breaks my heart that she’ll have to continue her fight for justice, including testifying about her rape again at trial.”
The lawyers who represented Mr. Khalil during the appeals process declined to comment. William Walker, who represented him at trial and will defend him when he is retried, said the sexual encounter at the heart of the case was consensual. Mr. Khalil was released from prison on Tuesday, Mr. Walker said.
“It was so powerful because it was unanimous,” Mr. Walker said of the state Supreme Court decision. He added, “I’m still pinching myself.”
Minnesota is one of about 40 states that do not explicitly prohibit sex with a voluntarily intoxicated victim, said Michal Buchhandler-Raphael, a law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School who researched the subject for an article published by the Brooklyn Law Review.
Legal experts like Kaarin Long, a women’s rights lawyer at the Advocates for Human Rights, said she worried that the Minnesota court’s decision could have national implications and might make women more hesitant to report these crimes.
One out of six American women has been the victim of rape or an attempted rape, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Often, Ms. Long said, attackers exploit someone who is drunk.
“For those women, it’s going to happen this weekend across Minnesota because it happens every weekend, unfortunately,” she said.
Many women and state legislators in Minnesota said they were not surprised by the court’s ruling. They said it highlighted the need for a change in state law, particularly the provision on “mental incapacitation,” which dates to 1975. The timing of the court’s decision has added urgency to that effort, they said.
“We are calling on the Legislature, the Minnesota Legislature, this session to really address these issues,” said Lindsay Brice, the law and policy director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “We can’t wait. It’s not fair to survivors to continue having debates.”
Marion O’Neill, a Republican Minnesota state representative, said she first introduced a five-part bill in 2019 that aimed, among other changes, to revise the state’s definition of mental incapacitation. She said at the time that the bill needed more vetting and input from stakeholders, so a working group was assembled that year that included sexual assault survivors, victims’ advocates, prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.
A new bill was introduced in February. It would create a new sexual extortion crime, making it illegal to blackmail or otherwise threaten someone as a way of coercing them into sexual contact. It would also expand the definition of “mentally incapacitated” to say that people in such a state are “incapable of consenting or incapable of appreciating, understanding, or controlling” their conduct.
“It’s really ignited a fire under the bill because people are hearing about the Supreme Court’s decision and are rightly outraged about how our current law works, or doesn’t work, as the case may be,” one of its authors, Representative Kelly Moller, a Democrat, said in a phone interview.
The bill has bipartisan support, and Ms. O’Neill, also an author, said that the leadership in the State Senate was working to move it forward. The Supreme Court decision had helped, in a way, by drawing new attention to its importance, she added.
“I don’t know of another bill in the Minnesota House that has that much support,” Ms. O’Neill said, adding, “I believe we’re really going to make this happen.”