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Sex abuse victim ‘too traumatized’ for trial

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Days before the trial was to begin, a Grand Forks prosecutor on Monday dropped charges against a man accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, saying “she was too traumatized” to testify.

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But Justin Breitweiser, an assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County, said he has four more years to re-file the same felony charges against Norman Kuehnel, which could put Kuehnel in prison for life.

Kuehnel’s attorney, Blake Hankey, meanwhile, protested the judge’s approval of the prosecutor’s motion, saying it unfairly kept the specter of the charges hanging over his innocent client’s head. He asked state District Judge Sonja Clapp to dismiss the charges “with prejudice,” which would preclude prosecutors from charging Kuehnel again in connection with the girl’s allegations.

Kuehnel, 51, was charged a year ago with three felony counts of gross sexual imposition, alleging he sexually assaulted his then-girlfriend’s 13-year-old daughter three times in summer 2010.

Judge Clapp had told Kuehnel earlier he faced up to life in prison without parole if convicted as well as a possible mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.

He pleaded not guilty and has been free on $10,000 bond awaiting trial. 

Double jeopardy?

The girl told her mother in autumn 2010 that Kuehnel had assaulted her and the mother told police, alleging Kuehnel admitted to her he did it, according to a police affidavit. Jury selection was slated to begin Friday in the trial.

“She can’t testify at this time,” Breitweiser told Clapp in court. “I met with her and her mother this morning.” Both agreed with his decision to drop the charges, he said.

After determining the law allows the charges to be filed up to seven years after the alleged incidents, Clapp approved Breitweiser’s motion, dismissing the charges “without prejudice.”

That allows prosecutors to re-file them anytime between now and, roughly, August 2017.

The idea of double jeopardy — facing the same charges more than once — comes into effect only after a trial begins, Clapp explained in her ruling.

Both Breitweiser and Hankey agreed it was an unusual turn in a case with such serious charges.

Kuehnel’s worry

After the hearing, Breitweiser explained the girl simply could not face the prospect of a trial and cross-examination about the details of what happened to her.

“She is too traumatized by what he did to her in the assaults,” he said.

The girl has had some counseling and may have more, Breitweiser said.

But Hankey, while acknowledging having the charges dismissed appears to be good for his client, said there was another side to the story.

“These things do get reported falsely,” Hankey said after the hearing, referring to other cases of similar charges being dismissed.

Kuehnel consistently has said he’s innocent, Hankey said. Plus, he’s found two gynecologists at Altru Hospital willing to testify as expert witnesses that the girl’s physical condition in October 2010 showed “no signs of physical trauma” or other indications consistent with her account of the alleged sexual assaults, Hankey said. 

“It’s been all over the paper and he’s labeled as a child rapist,” he said. “Yet we believe he’s innocent. But he still has to live with this hanging over his head, because it was dismissed without prejudice.”

Stephen J. Lee | Forum News Service

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