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Citing race, public defender asks to move sex assault trial from northern Minnesota city

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DULUTH - A former Hibbing Community College football player can't get a fair trial in that community because of his race and the perception that he was involved in the demise of the school's football program, his defense lawyer argued Monday in St. Louis County District Court.

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Andrew Jonathan Williams, 22, of Milwaukee is charged with two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct in the October 2006 incident involving an 18-year-old Grand Rapids woman in a college dormitory.

Three other men, who like Williams are black and from other states, are charged with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in the alleged incident. The four have pleaded not guilty.

Northeastern Minnesota Chief Public Defender Fred Friedman appeared before Judge Mark Starr in Hibbing to argue that Williams' trial be moved to an area with a more racially diverse jury pool.

In a brief filed with the court, public defenders Lara Whiteside and Scott Belfry wrote, "In a community racially and ethnically as homogeneous as that surrounding Hibbing, the trial of a transplanted African-American man for sexually assaulting a local Caucasian girl would be unavoidably biased."

Friedman filed his own motion arguing that Williams can't get a fair trial in Hibbing because, he said, there is a history of injustice concerning alleged interracial sexual assaults dating back to the 1920 Duluth lynching of three black men falsely accused of rape.

"This kid is black, and everybody in the courtroom will be white," Friedman said in a phone interview after the hearing. "Secondly, people have either read about this case, about football players coming to Hibbing from other parts of the country, or read about the demise of the football program at Hibbing Community College."

School officials cited players' poor academic performance when disbanding the football program in January 2007.

Friedman said he would like the trial moved to the Twin Cities, Duluth or Rochester.

St. Louis County prosecutor Brian Simonson opposes moving the trial. In a court filing, he argued there is no basis for believing that jurors in the Hibbing area are biased; that any alleged prejudicial pretrial publicity cited by the defense is factual, minimal and old; and that the court would always have the option to order the trial to be moved if problems developed during jury selection.

"I've handled at least six other felony jury trials in Hibbing where minorities have been defendants or victims; in each of the cases we have experienced no difficulty in picking a jury," Simonson said after the hearing.

Starr told the parties he expects to make a decision before Christmas.

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