Trial begins for prof accused of sexual assaultWas he just a concerned adult warning a young teen about the consequences of sexual activity in a public place? Or did he assault the girl and hold her against her will?
By: Judy Wiff, Hudson Star-Observer
Was he just a concerned adult warning a young teen about the consequences of sexual activity in a public place? Or did he assault the girl and hold her against her will?
As the trial of Thomas Barnett, 42, a UW-River Falls music professor charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child and false imprisonment, began this afternoon, the prosecutor and the defense attorney disagreed on what happened in Auditorium 5 of the Cinema 12 theater last Aug. 16.
Barnett was placed on administrative leave and ordered to have no contact with UW System students last September when university officials learned of the charges.
Jury selection took most of Wednesday morning. The trial, which is scheduled to last into Friday, began after lunch in Judge Eric Lundell’s Hudson courtroom.
In his opening statement to the jury, St. Croix County Assistant District Attorney Frank Collins admitted that the 13-year-old girl and her 14-year-old boyfriend lied during an initial court hearing and during early interviews with police and a nurse.
Collins said the two started by kissing and holding one another during the showing of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and then moved onto touching one another’s genitals and eventually to the girl performing oral sex on her boyfriend.
When the movie ended, said Collins, Barnett approached the two, who had been sitting in the row behind him, and told them he was a security officer and their actions had been caught on the theater’s surveillance cameras.
Collins said Barnett told the boy to go to the front desk, and then the man talked to the girl about sexual activity, held her by the arm, moved her from one corner of the auditorium to another and touched her breast and reached his hand inside her clothing.
Then, said Collins, “(Barnett) said, ‘Thank you for letting me touch you.’”
Collins said Barnett walked out of the auditorium, told the boy not to worry about the earlier incident and “hurriedly” left the theater.
After the incident the girl called her father and the teens approached theater workers, who called Hudson police, said Collins.
That night a forensic nurse collected samples from the girl’s body and clothing and sent them to a state lab for analysis.
The girl told investigators and later testified in court that she and her boyfriend had not had not engaged in sex that night, said Collins, admitting the two had lied.
“It’s an undeniable factor in this case,” said the prosecutor.
Then, he said, around Christmas the teens told their parents they had had sex.
Lab workers found “no DNA imprint” from Barnett on the girl or her clothing, but that doesn’t mean the man didn’t have sexual contact with her, said Collins.
Also, he said, while there is surveillance video from the hall and lobby, it doesn’t give a definite yes or no answer to whether or not a crime was committed.
Still, he said, testimony and the evidence would show Barnett is guilty.
'An $8 nap '
“It began as an $8 nap, and it became a costly nightmare,” said defense attorney Tim O’Brien, opening his case.
O’Brien said Barnett and his wife had just returned exhausted from a trip to visit out-of-state relatives that day. When their 12-year-old son asked that one of them take him and a friend to a movie, they agreed Barnett should go.
As he paid for the tickets, Barnett visited with a former student and saw the theater’s assistant manager, whom he knew from his home community.
O’Brien said Barnett dozed off during the movie, waking to notice the teens in the row behind him and to his right making out.
Later he noticed the girl sitting on the boy’s lap and when he glanced back later, Barnett thought he saw the girl performing oral sex on the boy.
“He’s like, ‘Oh my god, what is going on,’” said O’Brien.
Neither of the two boys with Barnett seemed to notice so as the movie drew to a close, he told he’d them to go to the lobby.
O’Brien said Barnett approached the teens, asking them how they’d feel if their parents had seen what they were doing or how they would feel if their behavior had been caught by surveillance cameras.
O’Brien said the assistant manager came into the theater three times after the movie and saw Barnett near the girl.
“Never once did she see physical contact between the two of them,” said O’Brien. He said the boy can’t testify that Barnett touched the girl.
O’Brien urged the jury to listen closely to the way the teens’ testimony about their sexual activity changed over time.
“They denied, they denied, they denied until they found out there was going to be DNA testing (of the boyfriend),” said O’Brien.
He said the evidence will convince jurors that the testimony saying Barnett assaulted the girl is equally false.
“There are two sides to this case,” said O’Brien, claiming that the prosecution won’t be able to meet its burden of proof.