Jurors acquit ex-Tennessee football players in rape trial

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jurors have acquitted two former University of Tennessee football players, nearly 3 ½ years after they were indicted on aggravated rape charges.

A jury of seven women and five men deliberated for almost 1 ½ hours Friday afternoon before finding A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams not guilty on all counts.

"We prayed, trusted in God," Johnson said afterward. "I just knew God was going to take care of it."

Johnson, 26, embraced friends and relatives as soon as the jury departed. The 25-year-old Williams gave a big hug to his lawyer, David Eldridge. The woman who said both men raped her left the courtroom as the not-guilty verdicts for Johnson were announced and before the jury foreman had even read their decision on Williams.

"I am so grateful to the jury for their work and their service to our community, and I'm grateful for their seeing the truth, (that) Michael Williams is not guilty and has never been guilty of this crime," Eldridge said. "He's looking forward to moving on with his life."

Johnson and Williams were indicted on February 2015 after a woman said both men raped her during a party at Johnson's apartment in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2014. Johnson and Williams were suspended from the team less than 48 hours after the party and never played for Tennessee again.

Prosecutors made the Tennessee football program's influence over the Knoxville community and Johnson's status as a local celebrity back in 2014 major elements of their case. During her closing argument Friday afternoon, Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Leslie Nassios described the defendants as "entitled men, used to getting their way, coddled, idolized men who weren't used to hearing the word, 'No.'"

Eldridge countered that Williams and Johnson were being prosecuted despite a lack of evidence because they're former Tennessee football players. Stephen Ross Johnson said Nassios made an "emotional" argument "because they don't have evidence."

Defense lawyers argued that the woman had consensual sex with both men at the same time and then lied, claiming she had been raped. Stephen Ross Johnson said the woman was "locked into a lie" that had spun out of control.

"She regrets it," Eldridge said. "Ladies and gentlemen, regret isn't rape."

Nassios questioned why the woman would lie about something like this. Nassios noted the woman had "lost everything that mattered to her" through this situation.

"How would you think (she) was ever locked in a lie?" Nassios said. "How many steps has she had in her life since this has happened — 3 ½ years — to stop if she wanted to? Where is the motivation to perpetuate a lie? Who has ever said that anybody has ever forced her into lying, forced her to come here, forced her to go through all this? It's not there. That's not a reasonable defense. It's irrational, in fact."

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