MN Supreme Court reverses rape conviction because woman wasn't forced to get drunk

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen speaks to a large crowd.
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen speaks during his swearing-in on July 24, 2018. Thissen wrote in a ruling reversing a rape conviction that the Legislature is “institutionally better positioned than courts” to make public policy, and pointed to efforts to overhaul the criminal sexual conduct statute.
Lacey Young | MPR News 2018

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of raping a woman who was drunk. The justices ruled that the state's definition of "mentally incapacitated" does not include voluntarily inebriated victims.

Hennepin County prosecutors say that in May of 2017,  Francois Khalil encountered a woman outside a Dinkytown bar who’d just consumed five shots of vodka and a prescription narcotic. Khalil invited her and a friend to a party.

Court documents say Khalil and two other men drove them to a house in Minneapolis, where there was no party. The woman, identified only by her initials, testified that she blacked out on the couch and later woke up to find Khalil raping her.

In 2019, a jury in Hennepin County convicted Khalil of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a victim who was impaired.

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But Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned his conviction, ruling that the state’s legal definition of “mentally incapacitated” only applies if a victim was given drugs or alcohol against their will — not if they consumed the substances voluntarily.

Khalil’s attorney Will Walker said the justices agreed with his contention that the trial judge gave incorrect instructions to the jury.

“They adopted our arguments. They adopted the opinion of the 30-page dissent from the Court of Appeals, and my arguments from the trial court and came out with the correct ruling. And we’re very, very pleased about that,” Walker said.

Khalil, now 24, is serving a five-year sentence at the Faribault state prison, but Walker said his client may soon be released.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Paul Thissen said because the meaning of the statute is clear “we apply that meaning and not what we may wish the law was or what we think the law should be.”

Thissen noted that the Minnesota Legislature is “institutionally better positioned than courts” to make public policy, and pointed to efforts to overhaul the criminal sexual conduct statute.

Survivors of sexual assault are urging Minnesota lawmakers to close what they say is a big loophole in state law.

Lindsay Brice, law and policy director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the ruling was no surprise because the statute’s language doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

“It makes it very clear that this issue needs to be fixed at the Legislature,” Brice said.

DFL Rep. Kelly Moller of Shoreview is sponsoring legislation that would change the law to say that anyone who’s intoxicated is incapable of consenting to sex even if they consumed alcohol or drugs voluntarily. Moller, who’s also an assistant Hennepin County attorney, said this would give prosecutors additional tools.

“This is something that will make a difference for those who do come forward and have these sets of circumstances, that their cases will at least be chargeable.”

Abby Honold, a sexual assault survivor and advocate, says this intoxication loophole has been a problem for years. She says it’s a roadblock for survivors seeking to press charges who have an otherwise solid case.

“There are a lot of people who are told when they report now, and when their case is referred to a prosecutor that essentially their sexual assault was technically legal. It’s always so heartbreaking to have to hear that from yet another survivor who came forward and reported,” Honold said.

Among other things, Moller’s bill would also create a new crime of sexual extortion, where a perpetrator makes threats that do not involve physical harm. The measure also raises the age in certain offenses against juveniles from under 13 to under 14.

While the bill has bipartisan support in both chambers, its companion measure in the Senate has yet to go before a committee.