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Minnesota man found not guilty in first test of Fargo's hate crime law

Kirk Jensen of Lake Park, Minnesota, claimed he did not know the person he allegedly punched was gay and that he acted in self-defense when he was attacked outside Cactus Jacks Saloon, according to his letter.

Fargo City Hall file.jpg
Fargo City Hall in downtown Fargo, June 18, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — A Lake Park, Minnesota, man has been acquitted of Fargo's first hate crime charge after claiming he acted in self-defense when he allegedly punched a gay man.

After 90 minutes of deliberation, a six-person jury found 35-year-old Kirk Wesley Jensen not guilty of simple assault on Wednesday, Aug. 17. The misdemeanor charge that was labeled a hate crime alleged Jensen punched a gay man numerous times in the face because of the man’s “actual or perceived sexual orientation” on Oct. 29 outside Cactus Jacks Saloon, 3402 Interstate Boulevard.

The trial lasted about 1 1/2 days at the Cass County Courthouse. Jensen, who acted as his own attorney in the case, declined to comment to The Forum after the verdict.

Fargo City Prosecutor William Wischer alleged Jensen called the gay man slurs inside the bar before hitting him outside the bar during a struggle.

In a five-page answer to the charge, Jensen said he didn’t know that the man he allegedly punched was gay, adding that he was not the aggressor in the altercation. He claimed he was antagonized by two women, including one who was friends with the gay man.

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Jensen said he was trying to leave the bar when the gay man “aggressively” stepped in his path, according to the letter. That’s when Jensen used slurs toward the man.

“I had/have no insight into his sexual orientation or preferences and am ashamed and remorseful at my choice in words and for engaging in a returned verbal insult,” Jensen wrote.

Jensen said a group of men later attacked him in the parking lot, including the gay man, according to the letter.

Jensen said he couldn’t confirm nor deny if he hit the gay man, but he said he acted in self-defense. At one point, he said he was tackled to the ground but had no memory of what happened next, according to the letter. It’s possible a blow to his head, drinking or being drugged at the bar caused the blackout, he wrote.

The case was the first test of Fargo’s hate crime ordinance, which was passed in June 2021. The law made it a Class B misdemeanor to commit simple assault, harassment and criminal mischief “in whole or part because of the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or ancestry.”

The maximum penalty is 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Wischer said Wednesday that he was unaware of any other hate crime charges being filed since Jensen’s, which was charged in December.

When asked about the verdict in Jensen’s case, Wischer said it is hard to prove the hate crime element in a case. Jensen’s self-defense strategy also likely played a role in his acquittal, Wischer said.

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"I’m disappointed with the outcome, but respect the jurors' decision," Wischer said.

MORE STORIES FROM APRIL BAUMGARTEN
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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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