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Defendant convicted of raping fellow Hamline University student

Pierce Heston Submitted photo

ST. PAUL -- Under the pretense that her older sister wanted him to escort her home safely from a party, a Hamline University student persuaded an underclassman to let him up to her dorm room during the early morning hours of May 15, 2016. Then, when she refused his sexual advances, he raped her, a jury found Friday.

After about five hours of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts on both criminal counts facing Pierce Heston in his case, including first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

The woman he assaulted clutched her sister’s hand and shook as she waited for Ramsey County District Judge George Stephenson’s law clerk to announce the jury’s decision.

She burst into tears when the first “guilty” verdict was read aloud.

Heston’s mother cried and leaned into the arm of a relative sitting next to her.

Heston didn’t display any reaction to the verdict and declined to comment afterward.

The 25-year-old from Ogilvie, Minn., testified at trial that the young woman, a Hamline freshman, had invited him back to her dorm room to have a drink after the two wound up leaving a house party near the St. Paul campus around the same time. Once back in her room, he said, she willingly had sex with him,  calling her a “full participant.”

The woman, who is now 21, testified that Heston forced her to perform oral sex on him and then raped her vaginally after she refused his attempts to kiss her. Bruises to her breasts, arms and legs, as well as a laceration to her vaginal area, were noted when she went to Regions Hospital for a sexual assault exam hours later. She also had bumps on the back of her throat and was bleeding persistently from her vaginal area.

Swabs taken from her body during the exam matched Heston’s DNA profile.

Assistant Ramsey County Attorneys Kaarin Long and Hao Nguyen showed jurors pictures of the woman’s injuries over the three days of testimony, and said the 6-foot tall, 310-pound former Hamline football offensive lineman used his size and strength to overpower the young woman.

“The defendant is bigger than (the victim). The defendant is stronger than (the victim). … (She told him) she (didn’t want to), but the defendant didn’t listen,” Nguyen said during his opening statement Tuesday. “He didn’t take no for an answer.”

Heston and the woman were acquaintances at the time, both said during their testimony, as Heston was a roommate of her older sister, but they didn’t know each other well when they ran into each other outside the house party on the last weekend of the spring semester.

The woman testified that Heston told her at the time that her sister had asked him to walk her home to make sure she made it there safely. Her sister had also been at the party that night, but left earlier.

Both Heston and the woman testified that they had been drinking, but said they’d started to sober up around the time they started heading home.

Given his connection to her sibling, the woman said that she trusted Heston’s story, and didn’t have reason to be suspicious of his intentions when he followed her inside her dorm room.

Heston’s attorney, Adrianne McMahon, attempted to discredit the accuser by pointing out her inability to remember large portions of the assault, including the vaginal penetration.

She also highlighted inconsistencies in the statements the woman made to law enforcement and medical staff about what had happened to her, and brought in a medical expert to testify that the vaginal injury she suffered could have also been caused by consensual sex.

“The state wants you to believe those (inconsistencies) don’t matter,” McMahon said  during her closing argument Friday morning. “But they go to a bigger picture of whether you can believe that … she knows what (really) happened.”

In her closing prosecution argument, Long explained to jurors that victims of sexual assault often struggle to remember everything that happened to them due to their emotional trauma.

The woman testified she had a panic attack immediately after Heston forced her to perform oral sex, so much of her memory of what happened afterward was incomplete or blank.

She was forced to take a leave of absence from school the next year due to the depression and anxiety that followed the assault, she said.

Long also asked jurors to reflect on why society seems to always cast more doubt on the credibility of victims of sexual assault than it does on victims of other crimes, and insisted that the woman stood to gain nothing by falsely accusing a man she hardly knew.

“(This woman) walked in that door, past the defendant’s entire family, past the defendant, past the defendant’s attorney and all of you, and talked about the most private matters someone can talk about,” Long said. “She has no reason to lie.”

Heston’s attorney said afterward that she was disappointed in the jury’s decision.

“Obviously, this is not the verdict we wanted, but I think Mr. Heston was glad to have had his side of the story come out,” McMahon said. “Sometimes these things just don’t turn out the way you’d like.”

Despite the state’s motion to take Heston to jail following the verdict, Judge Stephenson allowed Heston to remain out of custody with conditions until his sentencing hearing in late January.

State guidelines call for a presumptive sentence of 12 years in prison for first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

McMahon said she intends to argue that Heston deserves a lighter sentence.

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