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Ex-Montana QB's rape trial to begin

Image: Jordan Johnson (© Michael Albans/AP Photo)
Jordan Johnson was acquitted Friday by a jury that deliberated for about two hours.
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HELENA, Mont. (AP)

Just weeks after a University of Montana student claimed she was raped by the quarterback of the football team, the coach enthusiastically welcomed him back to spring drills and lauded his ''character and tremendous moral fiber.''

The woman's lawyer, Van de Wetering, quickly complained to the athletic department that the comment left his client ''less than confident in the university's commitment to protect her.''

Since then, the case has played out against a backdrop of NCAA and federal investigations of the school athletic department and the manner in which rape allegations are reported on campus, investigated by police, and prosecuted by the Missoula County Attorney's Office.

The situation has left some worried that the football program - while successful on the field - was out of control off it.

The quarterback, Jordan Johnson, was charged in July, and his rape trial is scheduled to begin Friday with jury selection. District Judge Karen Townsend initially called 400 potential jurors for the high-profile case.

An affidavit supporting the rape charge said Johnson and the alleged victim had known each other since 2010 and decided to watch a movie at her house on Feb. 4, 2012.

The woman told investigators Johnson held her down and forced her to have sex with him in her room despite her protests.

Court records show the woman texted her roommate: ''Omg ... I think I might have just gotten raped ....he kept pushing and pushing and I said no but he wouldn't listen ... I just wanna cry ... Omg what do I do!''

Johnson, in a motion to dismiss the case, said the woman had flirted with him the night before at a party and consented to sex the next night, even asking if he had a condom.

The motion also claimed the case was filed by county prosecutors to send a message about their efforts to pursue rape cases.

''The collateral damage to Jordan and his family is immeasurable,'' attorney Kirsten Pabst wrote.

The judge rejected the motion, saying the proper place to challenge the state's case was at trial.

Concerns about the handling of sexual assault cases peaked in December 2011, when UM President Royce Engstrom ordered an outside investigation after two students reported being drugged and raped.

Former Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz later said her investigation found nine alleged rapes or sexual assaults involving students had occurred between September 2010 and December 2011, including at least two that hadn't been reported. One led to former Montana football player Beau Donaldson pleading guilty to rape and being sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Engstrom said in January the investigation ''indicated a disproportionate association with patterns of behavior from a small number of student-athletes.''

''We will not tolerate the tarnishing of the proud tradition of Grizzly athletics,'' he said at the time.

Barz suggested training faculty and staff on how to handle and report sexual assault allegations and rewriting student and student-athlete conduct codes.

Just weeks later, the university came under more criticism after the dean of students notified a Saudi national about sexual assault and rape allegations made against him.

The student fled the country before the alleged victims could file a police report.

Johnson's case surfaced on March 9, when the female student obtained a temporary restraining order against him. He was briefly suspended from the football team then reinstated when a civil no-contact order replaced the restraining order.

Three days after coach Robin Pflugrad welcomed Johnson back, Engstrom announced he was not renewing the contracts of the coach and athletic director Jim O'Day. Both were immediately relieved of their duties, without an explanation from Engstrom.

The move came after a season when Montana advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal game. The Grizzlies have advanced to the national title game seven times since 1995, winning twice. The team's success came even as players and former players were arrested for drunken driving, assault and other charges.

''I'm sure the president has been reviewing all the different things that have been going on for some time and just decided, both in leadership of the department and in leadership of the football program, it was time to make a change,'' O'Day said when he was relieved of duty.

Last April, the federal Department of Education announced it was investigating a complaint alleging the university discriminated against female students, faculty and staff by failing to address a sexually hostile environmental caused by its failure to appropriately respond to reports of sexual assault.

Soon after, the U.S. Justice Department announced its investigation into the handling of rape investigations and prosecutions, and the school announced in May the NCAA had been investigating its athletic programs for undisclosed reasons.

The Department of Education said Wednesday it had closed the discrimination complaint because the allegations were being addressed by the Department of Justice investigation. The Justice Department and NCAA investigations continue.

Meanwhile, the campus has seen a rash of departures. Charles Couture retired as dean of students, Jim Foley stepped down as vice president for external relations, and chief legal counsel David Aronofsky retired from his post but said he would continue to teach classes.

Aronofsky issued a memo in late February on legal issues and recommendations for the university's handling of sexual assault reports. It urged UM employees to use caution in referring student-athletes to outside attorneys to avoid the appearance of seeking free or low-cost legal help, which would be a violation of NCAA rules.

Foley had earlier told the Missoulian he met two football players at an attorney's office on a Sunday in the fall of 2011 after they were arrested by police trying to break up a loud party.

Tagged: Jordan Johnson

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