How a sexual assault case at North Dakota State University became so complex

When The Forum sought interviews with NDSU police leadership about training officers to handle rape investigations, a university spokeswoman said officers are trained to minimize trauma, “persistently investigate sexual assaults" and pursue perpetrators.

The front gate of North Dakota State University is seen Dec. 18, 2019, at the intersection of University Drive and 12th Avenue North, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — A Minot State University student reported to police that she was sexually assaulted at North Dakota State University after a night of partying.

The allegations are familiar when it comes to college-related rape. The woman said she didn't remember what happened after drinking alcohol, and when she woke up Sept. 27, 2020, she was in pain, not knowing how she ended up lying on a couch in an NDSU campus apartment, according to a criminal complaint.

After finding out she had sex with then-NDSU student Alec J. Smith, which he claimed was consensual, the student went to her Minot State professor, Ashley Beall, court filings said.

Professors are mandatory reporters, but it's apparent from court filings the adjunct professor wanted to help her student. Beall and the student went to the Minot Police Department to report the allegations. Beall would later say in court filings she was acting as the student's attorney.

Beall's involvement was the beginning of a chain of events that complicated the case beyond a typical sexual assault investigation. More than a year later, Beall found herself appearing Nov. 2 in Cass County District Court with her own attorney, Christene Reierson, as they tried to fight claims by Smith's defense team that she was not working as an attorney when she and her student went to police.


Instead, the defense alleged the professor used her title as a Minot municipal judge to influence the investigation, which led to a felony charge of gross sexual imposition against Smith.

The now-20-year-old Smith, a former NDSU student, has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Smith's attorney, Cash Aaland, claimed in court that investigators ignored evidence that contradicted the sexual assault allegations. The defense attorney argued that Beall used her municipal judge title to report that NDSU Police Officer Randy Schmidt made victim-blaming comments, which later resulted in his firing.

Aaland alleged in court documents that the firing intimidated NDSU police officers to the point that they didn't investigate whether the sex was consensual, fearing they may be accused of victim-blaming. The judge's actions "chilled" the investigation or caused an inept investigation, Aaland wrote. NDSU police declined to comment on the case.

In court, Smith sat between his attorneys, Aaland and Jennifer Braun, as they argued that Beall should be subpoenaed.

It's rare for an accuser's attorney to appear and participate in a criminal case, and it's even more unheard of that an attorney bring their own lawyer to argue in criminal proceedings. But that's what happened.

At the hearing, Beall's attorney, Reierson, argued adamantly that Beall shouldn't be subject to deposition to protect client-attorney privileges. Information Aaland is seeking from Beall can come from other sources, Reierson said.

“If being an advocate in an attorney position forces you to then become deposed, that's a little scary to me as an attorney,” Reierson said in court, arguing that Beall was not a fact witness.


Cass County Assistant State's Attorney Katherine Naumann, who is prosecuting the case, noted during the hearing that others, including the accuser, also contacted NDSU to complain about Schmidt’s handling of the case. Prosecutors don’t plan to call Beall as a witness, Naumann said.

Cass County District Judge Susan Bailey ruled that Beall may have relevant information that could help Smith's case and must comply with a subpoena for the defense to depose her.

Municipal judges are considered part-time and are allowed to take on clients as attorneys, according to the North Dakota Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.

Bailey, a former municipal judge herself, said during the hearing that municipal judges need to be careful about how they represent themselves to others since they may have multiple titles. When asked how Beall is supposed to defend herself, Bailey told Reierson that Beall is not a party in the case. Beall's activities have opened her up to deposition, Bailey said.

Documents obtained by The Forum through public records requests shed light on the complexities of the case, including Beall and Schmidt's involvement, why the officer's firing was ultimately overturned and how the rights guaranteed crime victims clashed with a defendant’s right to due process.

How the accusations arose

Court filings revealed Beall and her student went to the Minot Police Department to report the allegations on Sept. 29, 2020. Video shows Beall talking to police about municipal court business before saying her student "came to me with a pretty serious matter," according to Aaland's brief.

The interview with Minot officers was the only one any law enforcement conducted with Beall's student, Aaland said in court. NDSU police did not speak with her about the allegations, he said.

“They presumed what (the accuser) was telling them was true, and they never questioned any of it,” Aaland said in court.


Beall, who was elected as a Minot municipal judge in 2018, did not return multiple phone messages left by The Forum, and attempts to reach her student were unsuccessful. The Forum typically does not identify survivors of sexual assaults.

Aaland claimed Beall allowed her title as a judge to vouch for her student's credibility. According to Aaland's brief, an officer in Minot said it was "nice that Judge Beall is here ... and that she is supporting you." Beall did not clarify to the officer that she was there as her student's attorney, Aaland wrote in his brief.

Proclaiming that Beall was acting as her student's attorney is not required by law, and Beall cannot control how others refer to her, Reierson said in court.

Minot police sent the investigation to the NDSU Police Department. Schmidt, a veteran officer of 17 years, interviewed the accuser’s friend and made what NDSU deemed were inappropriate comments.

Some of those comments included asking the friend whether the accuser was pretty and if she thought Schmidt was attractive, according to an internal review by NDSU police. He also said “in cases like this where alcohol is not consumed, this does not usually happen,” according to the review.

The accuser learned about Schmidt's line of questioning and it made her doubt whether NDSU police were taking her case seriously, according to the review. Schmidt’s comments didn't compromise the criminal investigation, but he did violate policy, the review determined.

NDSU put Schmidt on paid administrative leave on Nov. 5, 2020. His termination was effective Nov. 16, 2020.

Smith was charged Dec. 23, 2020, with a felony that alleged he sexually assaulted the woman while she was unaware. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

When The Forum requested interviews with NDSU police leadership about training officers to handle sexual assault investigations, university spokeswoman Brynn Rawlings said in an email that the school takes sexual assault cases very seriously. Officers are trained to minimize trauma, “persistently investigate sexual assaults" and pursue perpetrators, she said.

Firing reversed

Mark Friese, an attorney who represented Schmidt in his termination appeal, told The Forum that Schmidt's comments were taken out of context and blown out of proportion.

The officer was reviewing video with the friend and asking that person how they would describe Smith and the accuser so he could identify them, Friese said. Schmidt wasn’t victim-blaming but reminding the friend that people have a responsibility to follow school policy and the law, Friese said.

“The bottom line is that he was a scapegoat with respect to their view that he had not done things correctly,” Friese said. “He did exactly what a trained officer would do.”

Schmidt asked emergency dispatchers on Sept. 30, 2020, to search for surveillance video in the case, the internal investigation said. As he walked out of the dispatch office, one dispatcher heard Schmidt say, “Sounded like quite the orgy,” according to the internal investigation. Another dispatcher said he heard Schmidt say something about the party being an orgy, but he couldn't recall the exact words Schmidt used, according to the investigation.

One of those dispatchers was found by Schmidt sleeping on duty that same day, Friese alleged in a letter that argued Schmidt shouldn't be fired. Schmidt reported the dispatcher to a supervisor, and when confronted, the dispatcher claimed Schmidt made the inappropriate comment, Friese wrote in the letter.

Schmidt did not recall using the term “orgy” but acknowledged commenting about the “party” and explicit interactions, according to Friese's letter.

A public records request by The Forum did not turn up any complaints or investigations into a dispatcher sleeping on that day.

Schmidt appealed his termination and it was reversed, Friese told The Forum. The officer voluntarily resigned in early February, NDSU records show.

Schmidt said he would not work for an agency that would discipline him under the circumstances that they did, according to Friese. NDSU declined to comment on the internal investigation of Schmidt.

NDSU paid Schmidt $16,862 for three-months salary and health insurance premiums, according to a settlement agreement.

Marsy's Law

Beall claimed in court filings that Smith is upset about her client invoking Marsy's Law to have her voice heard at hearings. In her brief, Beall called the defense's tactics "nothing more than an attempt to intimidate and harass (the accuser) and to leave her without an advocate."

Approved in 2016, Marsy’s Law gives crime victims certain rights in North Dakota, including to have their voices heard in court and be informed that they can seek the advice of an attorney.

Depriving the accuser of her chosen attorney would violate the woman's rights under Marsy's Law, Beall argued in her brief.

However, Marsy's Law doesn't explicitly say a victim can choose any attorney they want. It also doesn't trump an attorney's ethical obligations regarding conflicts of interest, said Nick Thornton, a Fargo criminal defense attorney not connected to the case.

Attorneys must determine if they can represent someone without conflict. One such rule in North Dakota says a lawyer cannot act as an advocate for a potential client if they are likely to be a necessary witness.

If a person reports a crime, such as a sexual assault, they could become a witness, Thornton said.

Attorneys have ethical obligations, and they must withdraw, in most instances, from a case if they become a witness, Thornton said.

"You don't have a right to a lawyer breeching her obligation," he said.

In her brief, Beall called accusations against her “wild speculation.” She claims she started as the accuser's attorney on Sept. 28, 2020, before she and her client went to the police.

“If she withdraws, it seems like she’s done something wrong,” Reierson said of Beall. “If she stays on the case, she risks a disciplinary complaint and/or convoluting this case even more than it currently is for the alleged victim in this matter.”

The next court hearing in the sexual assault case is set for Feb. 9.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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