Judge's ruling is legal smackdown of case against football coach.
Blue Earth County District Judge Krista Jass could have taken the easy way out and let a jury weigh the controversial child pornography case against a Mankato football coach.
Hoffner, 46, is on leave from his job as head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Authorities arrested him in August after a university technician found three brief videos on Hoffner's malfunctioning cellphone of his three dancing, naked children.
Jass took the unusual step last week of throwing out the two felony-level child pornography charges when she granted a defense attorney's motion to dismiss the complaint against Hoffner for "lack of probable cause.'' Essentially, Jass concluded Hoffner shouldn't stand trial because there's not reasonable suspicion that he committed a crime.
Her forceful, meticulously researched 24-page ruling wasn't personally critical of Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson or his assistant Michael Hanson, who apparently made the call last summer that the videos were pornographic. But the ruling does raise serious doubts about the prosecutors' judgment as they pursued a reputation-shredding case that seemed to have less and less to it over time.
An investigation of Hoffner's home, his personal computer and equipment used at previous places of employment did not yield anything suspicious. In late September, Blue Earth County Human Services also determined that no maltreatment or sexual abuse of the children was occurring in the Hoffner home.
The case came to rest solely on the two of three videos that showed Hoffner's children, ages 9, 8 and 5, cavorting in towels and in the nude after a dip in the family's whirlpool tub. According to the ruling, prosecutors eventually appeared to agree that the third video, which showed one child walking to the bathroom at night, was not pornographic.
And yet on Nov. 14, the Blue Earth County attorney's office was still vigorously arguing that Hoffner had "used his own children" to produce pornography, charges that could have landed the coach in jail for years.
Jass, one of the limited number of people who have reviewed the video, decisively dispensed with the legal case against Hoffner in her ruling. She pointed out that the law does not consider nudity on its face to be pornographic. And, that the state failed to identify what elements in the video were "sexual in nature," a key component of legal descriptions of pornography. She also applied some welcome common sense, refuting prosecutors' over-the-top contention that one child was masturbating simply because he touched his genitals.
It's impossible to read the ruling without concluding that an injustice has been done. The judge's ruling has done much to set it right. But the reaction from the Blue Earth County attorney's office in its wake continues to undermine confidence in that office and in the criminal justice system itself.
There are serious questions being posed across the state about why prosecutors did not reconsider the charges as the case weakened, something they could have done at any time. Arneson, an elected official responsible for supervising his staff, declined an interview request from an editorial writer. Instead, via e-mail, he criticized a previous editorial asking him to publicly explain the ongoing charges against Hoffner.
Of the judge's ruling, Arneson said: "We handle about 2,700 cases a year, of which 500-600 are adult felony cases. We are expected to win every case. This time we didn't.''
Arneson failed to acknowledge how rare it is to have charges dismissed like this. More disturbing was his blasé dismissal of the ruling and his narrow view of the expectations for county attorneys.
Yes, they should vigorously prosecute crimes. But there's also a broader ethical obligation, one long acknowledged within the profession, that prosecutors are "ministers of justice." Their job isn't just to win cases, it's to ensure the system works fairly in a way that maintains the confidence of those governed by the law.
Prosecutors are given enormous power over individuals' lives. Whether Arneson has appropriately wielded that power should be a key issue when he is up for re-election in 2014.
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