Ex-Michigan State star Cleaves acquitted in sex assault case

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Mateen Cleaves

FILE – In this Dec. 5, 2016, file photo, Mateen Cleaves walks out of the district court at Genesee District Court in Flint, Mich. Former Michigan State University basketball star Cleaves is standing trial on sexual assault charges in his Michigan hometown. Opening statements began Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Genesee County Circuit Court in Flint, where Cleaves is charged with criminal sexual conduct, assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct and unlawful imprisonment. He’s accused of assaulting a 24-year-old woman after a charity golf event and a visit to a Flint-area bar in 2015. A district judge dismissed the charges in 2016, but a circuit court reinstated them on appeal. (Mark Felix/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP, File)

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves on Tuesday of allegations he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.

The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for a little more than two hours before delivering its verdict. Cleaves sobbed after the last of four not-guilty verdicts was read.

“Thank you for giving me my life back,” Cleaves said.

Juror Michael Lambert said the verdict came quickly after he and other jurors concluded Cleaves’ accuser wasn’t believable.

“Her testimony was consistent lies,” Lambert said, adding jurors noted the frequency he woman forgot key parts of her story.

Outside the court following the verdict, Cleaves continued to proclaim his innocence.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for four years,” he told reporters outside the court. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Evidence against Cleaves, 41, included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.

The woman testified during the trial last week that she had gone to a gathering at a bar with Cleaves at the Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club.

The woman said she and Cleaves stopped at a gas station and that she fell asleep before waking up in a room at the motel with him. The woman said she told Cleaves she “wanted to go home” but admitted she kissed him even after saying that.

“He started kissing me. I kissed him back, and I remember being on the bed,” the woman said. She said she didn’t want to be “rude” to Cleaves, a celebrity donor to her employer, because she didn’t want her rejection of his advances to affect her job.

Cleaves did not testify. His attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

During closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor David Champine said the woman, of Mount Morris, did not want to have sex with Cleaves and told him so.

“You can see her in the video pulling away,” Champine told jurors, adding she was able to push him off in some way and get out of Knights Inn in Mundy Township on Sept. 15, 2015. “He grabs her and starts pulling her. You can see her in the video pulling away … she doesn’t want to go back but his decision is he’s going to take her back.”

Cleaves’ defense team told jurors it was a clear case of consensual sex and that the woman is lying because she felt bad because she had cheated on her boyfriend with him.

“Regret is not rape,” argued defense attorney Michael Manley, contending there wasn’t a “sliver of DNA” evidence that backs up her claims.

Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.

But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.

Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.

And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”

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