Trial begins for ex-Tennessee players facing rape charges

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A prosecutor in the trial of former Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams says they used their status as athletes to rape a woman in a "case about power, privilege and protection."

Defense lawyers countered that the woman voluntarily had sex with both men before lying out of embarrassment.

The trial for Johnson and Williams got underway Monday, nearly four years after the incident in question. Each is charged with aggravated rape.

Johnson was a star linebacker and Williams a defensive back for Tennessee when a woman says both men raped her in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2014. Johnson and Williams never played for Tennessee again and were indicted on February 2015.

"They pass her back and forth like a rag doll," Knox County deputy district attorney general Kyle Hixson said in his opening statement. "To them, that's all she was."

Defense lawyers offered a starkly different account of what happened that night during a party at Johnson's apartment, which followed a Tennessee victory over Kentucky.

David Eldridge, Williams' lawyer, said the woman agreed to have sex with both players at the same time as long as they "just don't tell anybody, pinkie promise you won't tell anybody."

Defense lawyers said the woman changed her story only after she left Johnson's bedroom, saw Tennessee wide receiver Von Pearson and realized she wouldn't be able to keep what happened a secret. Stephen Ross Johnson, the lawyer for A.J. Johnson, said the woman "got locked into a lie that has caused her to make a false accusation."

"As soon as she came up with that lie, it went beyond her control," said Stephen Ross Johnson, who isn't related to A.J. Johnson.

The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are victims of sexual abuse.

Hixson has acknowledged the woman had consensual sex with A.J. Johnson on two occasions before the night in question.

The woman who says she was raped had attended the party at Johnson's apartment with a friend visiting from out of state. The woman and her friend went upstairs with the two defendants when Johnson asked if they wanted to see his fish tanks.

Hixson said that after the woman removed her sneakers, Johnson stood over her, pushed her on her back and started to have sex with her.

The woman's friend testified Monday that Williams unbuttoned his pants and tried forcing the witness into sexual activity before she got away and left the room. The witness opted against pressing charges.

Hixson said that the sex between Johnson and the woman while all four people in the room wasn't necessarily "consensual in her mind," but added that Johnson "had no way of knowing that she was not consenting to what he was doing" at the time. The charges against Johnson and Williams instead stem from what took place after the witness left the room. That's when, Hixson said, the other woman was raped by both Johnson and Williams.

Hixson said the woman often said, "no," and asked to leave. Hixson said the woman didn't fight or try to run away because she feared "what they would do to her physically" if she tried to leave or scream for help.

The witness who testified Monday said the woman was "crying hysterically" and hyperventilating afterward. Eldridge said any tears the woman shed were "tears of embarrassment and not the tears of a woman who had been forcibly raped."

Hixson said the defendants' status as Tennessee football players complicated the case.

He said Tennessee associate athletic director Mike Ward "insisted on being present" for all interviews that investigators conducted with football players. Ward is now Elon's deputy director of athletics.

Hixson said Knoxville police also issued a report that publicly identified the two players as suspects and also included the woman's name. Hixson said the woman was harassed on social media afterward.

The witness who testified Monday said the woman was reluctant to notify police because she feared people wouldn't believe her and that she'd "ruin UT football."

Defense lawyers said the woman and her friends also closed ranks after the incident.

Stephen Ross Johnson noted the woman and her friend both got new phones at around the same time on January 2015 without saving social-media communications from their old phones, preventing anyone from obtaining many of the social-media conversations that took place among witnesses around the time of the incident. He also cited conflicting statements the woman made to investigators.


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