FARGO – Brie Mason had one word to describe her reaction to the news last week that a man who pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a college student here would serve no jail time: “disgust.”
“It just made me angry,” said Mason, a 23-year-old student who joined a line of protesters along the Main Avenue bridge between Fargo and Moorhead on Tuesday.
More than 30 people of all ages, holding signs and cheering when drivers honked to show their support, showed their disapproval with how a sexual assault case was handled in a Cass County court and, more generally, drew attention to sexual violence.
One man, holding a sign that read, “Blame the rapist not the victim,” said the protest was useful in showing “that people are paying attention and care about this issue.”
“Victims can feel alone, and if nothing else, it shows that people care,” said 29-year-old Landon Barta of Fargo.
The protest followed a controversial plea deal in the case of a Minnesota State University Moorhead student who was sexually assaulted in May 2013 in Fargo.
Her attacker, Taylor Jerrod Pederson, pleaded guilty March 23 to Class B misdemeanor sex assault and Class A misdemeanor assault, though he originally faced a far more serious charge of Class A felony gross sexual imposition.
Pederson was sentenced to a year of probation, no jail time, and no requirement to register as a sex offender.
That touched off a wave of outrage from students, police and even a retired Fargo municipal judge.
“I was devastated,” said 23-year-old Johanna Crane, a student who was at the protest.
“I have been through something like that before,” she added. “She deserves justice.”
The sign she held, “Protect us not rapists,” showed the intense dissatisfaction with the plea deal between Pederson and Cass County prosecutors, who said it was reasonable given the circumstances of the crime.
Pederson, of Mankato, Minn., attended a formal with the victim, an MSUM sorority member, and some friends nearly two years ago, court documents state.
Before heading to a Fargo hotel, there was heavy drinking at a downtown bar, and the victim’s friends noticed she was passing out at the table, court documents state.
The victim later told police that she did not remember much after being at the bar and vomiting there. She ended up at the hotel and fell asleep, then woke up with Pederson on top of her. She tried to stop him by rolling away and then passed out, she told police. When she awoke, she had blood and bruises on her body.
Pederson maintained the sex was consensual and told police the victim was aware for “most of it.”
Gap in state law
Jessy Hegland, who helped organize Tuesday’s protest, said she was incensed, but not surprised, that Pederson faced no jail time.
“Of course he got away with it, because 98 percent of all rapists never spend a day in jail. But he pleaded guilty and he doesn’t have to register as a sex offender,” said Hegland, 27. “That would have followed him for the rest of his life.
“But the trauma that will follow countless people who have experienced this follow them for the rest of their life,” she said of the victims.
Hegland, a student at MSUM, said the case was representative of a larger bias against women.
“My reaction was the same reaction as any decent human being’s reaction, which was outrage and disgust, because of our systematic institutionalized oppression towards women and the devalue placed upon women’s lives,” she said.
Leah Viste, a Cass County prosecutor, said she would like to meet with protest organizers to discuss the case and discrepancies in the state’s sexual assault laws.
When the plea deal was reached, Pederson went from facing a felony, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, to a relatively minor misdemeanor. State law has a gap in the severity of possible rape charges, Viste previously told The Forum.
Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said Thursday that the case presented an opportunity to consider changes to the state’s sexual assault laws.
Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams had indicated she might attend the protest but did not. She said she was not familiar enough with the case.