KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Prosecutors in the rape trial of former Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams rested their case Thursday after a Knoxville police official testified how the Tennessee football program's clout complicated the investigation.
Defense lawyers will begin making their cases Friday.
A woman testified Wednesday that Johnson and Williams raped her during a party at Johnson's apartment in the early hours of Nov. 16, 2014, after a Tennessee football victory over Kentucky. They were suspended from the team less than 48 hours later and never played for Tennessee again.
Both men were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015. Defense lawyers have argued that the woman had consensual sex with Johnson and Williams at the same time before lying that she was raped.
Prosecutors have made Tennessee football's influence over the Knoxville community and Johnson's status as a local celebrity back in 2014 major elements of their case.
Tim Riddle of the Knoxville Police Department said Thursday that Tennessee associate athletic director Mike Ward sat in on at least nine interviews that police conducted with Tennessee football players during the investigation. Riddle noted that those interviews took place at Tennessee athletic facilities rather than at the police station as is customary.
Riddle said Ward mentioned to him at one point how much money Tennessee football brings in to the Knoxville area each year.
"It let me think that the UT program is much bigger than this case," Riddle said.
Ward disputes Riddle's version of events.
Ward, now the deputy athletics director at Elon, said via email Thursday that he's certain he never told Riddle anything about the economic impact of Tennessee football and noted that it wouldn't have been relevant to the investigation.
In a follow-up phone conversation, Ward recalled sitting in on three to four interviews with football players but noted that his presence was at the invitation of the Knoxville Police Department. Ward said he was in the room for parts of those interviews and out of the room for other parts while getting additional student-athletes who had been requested.
Riddle also said that Butch Jones, Tennessee's football coach at the time, received a phone call from Knoxville police officer Sam Brown the morning after Johnson's party. Phone records show that Jones called Johnson a few minutes later. That started a series of phone calls among Tennessee players and coaches that day as police were trying to investigate the case.
"To maintain integrity of any rape investigation, I think you want to hit on surprise," Riddle said. "There's a couple of reasons for this. One reason is evidence. You don't want a suspect to know they're coming to their residence because they can clean up, or there are ways they can dispose of evidence. Another reason is you don't want them to get their stories straight."
David Rausch, the Knoxville police chief at the time, also called Jones that morning. Rausch now is the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Knoxville police used to have a policy of placing "courtesy calls" to University of Tennessee coaches when one of their players was under investigation. Jones' phone records from the morning after Johnson's party were released to the media in 2016 in response to public records requests, and the city discontinued its "courtesy calls" policy later that year. Rausch issued a statement at the time that said an internal review had shown "no investigations were compromised or improper information provided."
Johnson's calls and social media communications from the day after the party were shown during Riddle's testimony. That included an instant message from Raiques Crump, a former Tennessee football teammate who was going through field training to join the Knoxville Police Department. Crump said "whatever happens, just be honest" and added that police were trying to keep the investigation away from the media for as long as possible.
Stephen Ross Johnson, who represents A.J. Johnson but isn't related to him, said prosecutors were "trying to come up with some vast conspiracy" between police and the football program. During cross examination, he got Riddle to acknowledge that A.J. Johnson spoke to investigators at Knoxville police headquarters without a school official present.
Riddle also noted on cross examination that he had no way of knowing what was said during any of those phone calls that Tennessee football players or coaches made that day.
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