The Minnesota assault overturn shows that the justice system is going backward

By Mariyam Quaisar, Managing Editor

Through recent Instagram posts, I found out the state of Minnesota does not fairly investigate a sexual assault case if the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. I was repulsed by this fact. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Francios Momolu Khalil’s conviction for a third-degree criminal sexual conduct charge and granted him a retrial because the victim was voluntarily intoxicated at the time of the assault. The final decision to order a new trial for Khalil was made on Mar. 24, 2021, four years after the actual incident. 

Unfortunately, rules surrounding sexual assault laws and misconduct are similarly applied in about 40 other states. The majority of the United States does not explicitly prohibit non-consensual sex if the victim is voluntarily intoxicated. 

According to the trial, third-degree criminal sexual misconduct consists of “sexual penetration with another person when the actor knows or has reason to know that the complainant is ‘mentally incapacitated.” In this case, the State declared Khalil cannot be charged with this third-degree conduct because there is no evidence that he knew the victim was under the influence of alcohol. The victim was not considered to be “mentally incapacitated” because she chose to get drunk the night of the assault. 

The night of May 14, 2017, the victim ingested five shots of vodka and one pill of a prescription drug. She was denied entry to a local Minneapolis bar when Khalil and two other men approached her and her friend with a party invite. Upon arrival at the house, there was no party and the victim “immediately laid down on the living room couch and soon fell asleep.” She had blacked out and woke up a little later to find Khalil raping her. “She said ‘No, I don’t want to,’ to which he replied, ‘But you’re so hot and you turn me on.’” The victim then lost consciousness again and woke up around 8 a.m. to find “her shorts around her ankles.” The victim had a rape kit done on May 18, 2017 and reported the incident to the Minneapolis police the same day. 

Upon investigation, Khalil was charged with “one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant.” 

The jury asked for clarification on the phrase “mentally incapacitated,” to which the district court provided two definitions—one of which said the victim needs to be under the influence of alcohol, either administered by herself or without her agreement, and the other saying the victim had to be administered alcohol without their knowledge. The jury then found Khalil guilty of two counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct and two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. 

Khalil proceeded to challenge the jury’s decision—saying in his appeal the definition provided of mentally incapacitated was incorrect. In its decision, the appeals court concurred writing that since the victim was involuntarily incapacitated, he does not qualify for third-degree criminal sexual misconduct. 

Despite the State’s several arguments against Khalil’s appeal, regarding the linguistics of the statutes, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously decided that the State did not have enough evidence to prove Khalil guilty. It was instead decided that, under current law, Khalil’s actions would not be considered a felony because of the victim’s voluntary consumption of alcohol, and he will instead be charged with fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct—“a gross misdemeanor for a first time offense.”

The district court’s “definition error” reversed the jury’s initial decision and granted Khalil a new trial, the decision written by Justice Paul Thissen said. If convicted with fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, Khalil could face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. In comparison, the third-degree charge would have sent him to prison for 15 years with a fine of up to $30,000. 

The interpretations of the laws of sexual conduct point towards victim-blaming. The basis around Khalil’s retrial is surrounding the victim’s voluntary intoxication, rather than the clear facts of what was done to her. Thankfully, the Minnesota House of Representatives is considering a bill that would alter the language of the current statutes so it is a felony to have sex with someone who is too intoxicated to provide consent, regardless of the consumption of alcohol or drugs being voluntary or not. 

A case like this makes me ask: is our country going backward with its means of justice and protection for sexual assault victims?

One of the earliest sets of written laws, The Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to 1780 B.C., defines rape as property damage against a virgin woman’s father. However, if the victim was a married woman, then she would be considered an adulteress, not a victim of sexual assault. She’d then get punished, and, throughout the whole process, nobody would care about the attacker. 

In early American colonies, during the late 1800s, the legal age of consent rose from 10 to 14, depending on the state. According to The Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service, women of color, specifically African American women, were frequently sexually abused, but excluded from rape laws until 1861 when they were able to finally file rape charges against white men. About a century later, there was significant progress with rape laws. In 1975, defendants were no longer able to present the victim’s past sexual activity as evidence, motivating more victims to report sex crimes without fear of humiliation. Marital rape was exempt from numerous laws, until it was successfully considered a crime in all 50 states in 1993. 

Despite all this positive progress the United States has seen over the past two centuries, there seems to be a standstill in modern day. Sexual assault has been consistently making headlines, as our former president shamelessly makes repulsive comments about women and the #MeToo movement continues to gain traction. It is great to see women standing up for themselves and reporting their stories, however, it is upsetting to see most of them not get the justice they deserve. 

Today in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, and one out of every six American women is the victim of attempted or completed rape. 

Through the #MeToo movement, there have been hundreds of sexual assault allegations against powerful men, but only a few have faced consequences. Producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted, followed by five more men who faced charges and seven who were convicted. Out of hundreds. The majority of these disgusting men solely lost their jobs. How is that justice? How is that compensation for what those victims endured? Sexual assault is not only revolting but also a crime, and those committing this act are criminals—treat them the way they deservewith jail time. 

The #MeToo movement did lead to some systemic change. We have seen several alterations within state laws, where states are banning nondisclosure agreements that cover sexual harassment, introducing protection for more workers (specifically for independent contractors, not just employees), and Congress has reformed aspects of the process for reporting sexual harassment by eliminating the mandatory three-month waiting period to report. Some survivors are also receiving financial compensation—but is that enough? Well, we can see exactly how that was not enough in Minnesota. Khalil was granted a retrial because of an unjust interpretation of the law. Changing laws for the better and implementing those laws are very different—our country needs to learn how to do both. 

As laws continue to be interpreted in such a heinous manner, forcing victims to repeatedly share their traumatizing experiences as defendants continue to find loopholes, women will become more and more hesitant with reporting such crimes. As a society, we must work on providing a safe platform for sexual assault victims to share their stories, not for them to be humiliated and have to debate their way to justice.