Students protest light sentencing in rape case

By Josie Gereszek

A controversial plea deal in the case of a 23-year-old man who plead guilty to raping a Minnesota State University Moorhead sorority member has some students outraged. They’re hoping, in the midst of another guilty plea in a separate case in which an MSUM student was victimized, their calls for change will be heard.

It was nearly two years ago when an MSUM student accused Taylor Jerrod Pederson, of Mankato, of sexual assault. March 23, a guilty plea in Cass County District Court resulted in Pederson’s sentence of a year of probation, no jail time and no requirement of registration as a sex offender.

Court documents filed in the case alleged Pederson sexually assaulted the victim in a Fargo hotel room in May 2013 after attending a Greek formal with her and some friends.

The evening included heavy drinking at a downtown bar, which led to the victim dry-heaving in the hotel’s parking lot later, she told police. There, documents say, she went to bed, woke up with Pederson on top of her, and tried to stop him by rolling away, but then passed out.

The victim reported she awoke later to find blood and bruises on her body.

In a police interview, Pederson said the sex was consensual and that the woman was aware for “most of it,” though he acknowledged to police they were “too drunk” and should not have had sex, court documents state.

The plea agreement shifted Pederson’s charges to a count of Class B misdemeanor sexual assault and Class A misdemeanor assault from a far more serious Class A felony charge of gross sexual imposition. The felony charge which Pederson initially faced would have carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

March 31 saw students’ response — a protest on the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, speaking out against the court’s acceptance of the plea deal and Pederson’s punishment.

Protest organizer and film junior Jessy Hegland said that for many, the ruling was met with shock.

“That was pretty outrageous to me,” Hegland said. “He pleaded guilty. Throw him in jail.”

Holding signs like “Blame the rapist, not the victim,” community members joined students and faculty in their shouts of frustration.

“Break the silence, stop the violence!” was audible above the more than 30-person crowd. Women’s and gender studies senior Chandler Esslinger said she and other students were there fighting an injustice in their community.

“It’s hard to wrap our heads around it, the fact that people take it so lightly,” mass comm. junior Lexi Byler said.

Women’s and gender studies faculty member Claudia Murphy said that law enforcement’s dismissive mentality perpetuates the rapes of students.

“It’s been kind of a haven for rapists to get away with what they’ve done to women on campus and not be taken to task for it,” Murphy said.

She said in a campus setting, a shift toward an enforced culture against rape is important. And with a recent guilty plea from yet another former MSUM student charged with sexual assault, the community waits to see if that sort of change might come sooner than later.

On Apr. 6, once-MSUM football player Zachary Ty Hilliard, 18, of Erie, Colorado, plead guilty in Clay County District Court to sexually assaulting a female student in his dorm room last fall, a charge of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a gross misdemeanor.

Court documents say Hilliard forced a freshman, whom he briefly dated, to have sex with him in his dorm room Sept. 18, holding her down while he was on top of her, though she repeatedly told him “no.” The Sept. 26 complaint filed against Hilliard states he had raped the victim about eight days after their dating relationship ended. Though it states she had gone to his dorm room and engaged in sexual contact, it continues that when he wanted intercourse, the victim said she did not consent.

Court documents state he texted her “Sorry” and “I was wrong, I agree,” following the assault.

Hilliard’s sentencing date is May 11.

Now, students and the community wait again to see if their voices will be heard.

“It’s time to stop the violence against women,” Murphy said. “Let’s just stop.”

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