The Minneapolis Police Department has opened an internal investigation into its handling of rape allegations against a University of Minnesota law professor who spent three weeks in jail on multiple felony charges before they were dropped for lack of evidence.
A review of police and court records provided by professor Francesco Parisi’s attorneys shows that the Hennepin County attorney’s office filed the charges despite not getting any corroborating evidence that Parisi committed the sexual assault. Two months before Parisi was charged police determined that the accuser’s claims could not be substantiated.
The county attorney’s office dropped the charges March 9, saying that its efforts to back up the accusations were “unsuccessful.”
MPD spokeswoman Sgt. Catherine Michal declined to comment or elaborate on the nature of the investigation.
“Everything the MPD found during the investigation is outlined in the [criminal] complaint,” Michal said.
Authorities also charged Parisi with stalking after his 55-year-old accuser said that he tried to run her down Jan. 17 with his Jeep. However, police never contacted witnesses who since have said that Parisi’s Jeep was not used during the entire month of January due to a dead battery, records and interviews show.
Hennepin County’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty, reviewed the records and said it was “shocking” that prosecutors charged Parisi.
“They had other options. Talk to him,” she said. “I’m sure his lawyers would have provided information that would have persuaded them not to charge.’’
Parisi has filed a defamation lawsuit against the accuser, whom the Star Tribune is not naming. She could not be reached for comment.
“Every statement [in the criminal charge] can be proven false in a matter of minutes,” Parisi said in an interview this week. “I’m still hoping charges can be brought against her. This is not a matter of insufficient evidence. This is a matter of affirmative lies.”
‘Not enough evidence’
The police reports show Parisi’s charges were based almost solely on the word of his accuser, with whom he had a brief relationship. The two have been locked in a contentious property dispute since January 2015 — the same month of the alleged rape.
While rape charges can be filed on an accuser’s allegations alone, it is difficult to prove those cases to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt unless there’s other evidence to back up the claims, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Otherwise, a jury has to find the accuser more credible than the alleged rapist in order to convict.
After reviewing the court and police records, Sampsell-Jones said there were several red flags about the case. Among those, when the woman first went to police in June 2016 — a year and a half after she said the rape happened — MPD investigator Julie Hagen found that “the accuser was less interested in pursuing charges or an investigation with the knowledge that I would not be assisting her with the [property dispute].”
Hagen closed the case in December saying “there is not enough evidence at this time to pursue an investigation.”
When the accuser again reported the rape to lead investigator Ron Stenerson in February 2016, she brought no new evidence to support the allegations. Reports show that Stenerson could have verified at least some of her story, but never did.
The woman said Parisi raped her so viciously that it broke three of her teeth and she needed to have colon surgery to repair the damage. But Stenerson never got the dental or medical records until after Parisi was charged. When the records were obtained, they showed that in February 2015 the accuser went to a doctor for a migraine, but reported nothing about a rape or any physical injuries. In a report police received after Parisi was charged, medical records showed that the accuser went to a colon specialist nearly two years after the alleged rape.
According to Stenerson’s report, the woman told him she “has a restraining order” and sexual assault lawsuit against Parisi. However, the restraining order had since been dismissed and there was no lawsuit related to sexual assault.
Those same public records show that the accuser’s allegations of rape have changed over time, which Stenerson never noted in his report. In March 2015 she initially described the incident in a court filing as Parisi yelling and preventing her from leaving his apartment. In another court filing in January 2016 she accused him of beating her during the same encounter. The first time she accused Parisi of rape was two weeks after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against her in the property dispute.
The accuser told Stenerson that she ended her relationship with Parisi after the alleged rape in January 2015. Yet text messages provided to the Star Tribune show about a month later the accuser wrote to Parisi: “I love you! I love you! I love you!” and “I still love you and you can’t make me stop!”
When the woman told Stenerson about the assault, she was with her boyfriend, an attorney who prosecutes low-level crimes for suburban cities. But she told Stenerson that he was a Hennepin County prosecutor. Stenerson never appeared to check out the claim.
In charging Parisi with stalking, the accuser gave Stenerson a photo of the professor’s car she said she took as he chased her Jan. 17.
However, the investigator never followed up with a building manager to confirm information about Parisi’s car. That man sent Parisi a text Monday, confirming that for all of January his Jeep was in a parking lot with a dead battery.
The only corroborating evidence in the complaint was Stenerson writing that the woman provided text messages showing Parisi begging her to drop an order for protection she filed in March 2015.
The complaint also incorrectly stated that the woman had had surgery to repair damage to her colon, even though she and her boyfriend had told Stenerson that the surgery had not yet been performed.
Stenerson sent his investigation on Feb. 17 to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office saying the facts “constitute probable cause to believe that [Parisi] committed” the rape and stalking. Assistant county attorney Justin Wesley filed the charges on Feb. 21 with a request to hold Parisi in lieu of $500,000 bail.
The Hennepin County attorney’s office declined to discuss why charges were brought against Parisi.
Joe Friedberg, a longtime Minnesota defense attorney who reviewed the records for the Star Tribune, said the case shows a clear breakdown of the checks and balances that are supposed to prevent wrongful accusations and incarcerations.
“Prosecutors are not supposed to be just a disciple of the police,” said Friedberg, who has defended several high-profile cases in Hennepin County.
Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office, said no case has been submitted to them for possible charges of false reporting of a crime.
“In our experience,” Laszewski said in a statement, “interactions between two people, especially in personal relationships, is never clear-cut, making it very difficult to prove false statements beyond a reasonable doubt. If we charge a false reporting case, and fail to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, it could have a chilling effect on other victims, witnesses and others in the community in similar situations.”
A case like Parisi’s could have severe consequences by discouraging rape victims from reporting, said Caroline Palmer, the public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. In this case, the charges against a high-profile professor brought widespread media attention, and prompted Parisi to sue the accuser.
“If somebody comes forward, and there’s a lawsuit, then the victim is worried: ‘I tried to get help and yet I’m the one who has to answer for this,’ ” Palmer said.