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Fate of Cook County attorney in jury’s hands

DULUTH -- Special prosecutor Tom Heffelfinger on Thursday called Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell's acknowledgement that he had "thoroughly, utterly and evilly" betrayed the trust of a 17-year-old girl's mother a "stunning admission" of guilt in...


DULUTH - Special prosecutor Tom Heffelfinger on Thursday called Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell’s acknowledgement that he had “thoroughly, utterly and evilly” betrayed the trust of a 17-year-old girl’s mother a “stunning admission” of guilt in his sexual misconduct trial.

Defense attorney Joe Tamburino, meanwhile, called Scannell’s behavior “distasteful” and “immoral,” but asserted that there was nothing illegal about his physical relationship with the girl.

Those were the contentions made by attorneys during closing arguments Thursday afternoon at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.


A jury of nine men and three women spent about three hours deliberating two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct against Scannell before retiring at 8 p.m. The jury is not being sequestered, and deliberation is expected to pick up again Friday.

Testimony concluded earlier in the day, with Scannell spending another four hours on the stand. The trial got underway on Monday with jury selection.

Scannell has admitted that he had a relationship with the 17-year-old in the summer of 2012. He’s accused of kissing and touching her sexually while the two were parked in his family van on a rural Cook County road.

The girl testified earlier that she had known Scannell since she was about 9. She said their physical relationship began with kissing when she was 17. During August 2012, it progressed to touching of her breasts and buttocks, she testified. The girl said she refused several of his advances to engage in sexual intercourse.

Scannell admitted that they kissed fewer than 10 times, but rebutted much of her testimony. He said he never touched her sexually, only inadvertently touching her breast once, and denied that he ever suggested they engage in sexual intercourse.

Because the age of consent in Minnesota is typically 16, the jury was asked to decide whether Scannell was in a “position of authority” over the girl at the time of the acts. That became a major sticking point between the two sides.

Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota assigned to prosecute Scannell, told jurors that either Scannell or the girl lied on the witness stand. He asked them to consider the credibility of each and consider who would benefit from lying.

“(The girl) has no interest in the outcome of this case. What’s she got to gain?” Heffelfinger asked. “On the other hand, what’s the defendant got to gain? He’s at risk of a conviction. … Who has more at stake here?”


Heffelfinger showed jurors a bulleted list of 10 ways that he said Scannell was in a position of authority over the girl throughout her life: mentor, father figure, family friend, college advisor, tennis coach, academic advisor, job counselor, social advisor, guitar teacher and soccer coach.

Heffelfinger pointed to Scannell’s extensive knowledge of sexual misconduct cases, including Scannell’s alleged statement that he “can’t get in trouble unless there’s penetration.”

“Who would know better than the county attorney?” Heffelfinger asked.

Tamburino, in his closing argument, did not seek to deny that Scannell’s relationship was inappropriate, but said it most definitely was not illegal.

He argued that state statute defines an authority figure as a person “charged with any rights, duties and responsibilities of a parent.” Scannell was not “charged” with the care of the girl at the time of the acts, and any positions of authority he may have held ended before the acts, Tamburino said.

“You have to be charged with those responsibilities,” he explained. “If you are not, then you are not guilty.”

Further, Tamburino took issue with the alleged victim’s statement throughout the investigation and trial. He noted that she initially refused to meet with investigators for several months. When she finally did in February 2013, she said there was kissing and touching, “but nothing sexual.”

Tamburino made the case that the girl changed her story under pressure from her parents and that the family’s attorney, David Lillehaug, now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, pressed for the fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct charges.


“Mr. Scannell did not sexually touch (the girl) and he certainly did not do it while in a position of authority,” he argued. “If you don’t know what happened beyond a reasonable doubt, you cannot convict.”

Scannell, 48, remains county attorney but has been on medical leave since last October as he continues to recover from a courthouse shooting in December 2012. He is not running for a third term in this fall’s general election.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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