Accuser in rape case against ex-Vols A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams to testify for first time

Former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams shake hands as they leave a motions hearing in Knox County Criminal Court on Sept. 17.

The accuser in a rape allegation that sidelined the football career of a star University of Tennessee linebacker and his then-teammate is expected to testify – for the first time – at a hearing Wednesday, court records show.

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee has set a hearing Wednesday in the case of former UT linebacker A.J. Johnson and former teammate Michael Williams at which the men’s accuser, also a UT athlete, is expected to take the witness stand.

Shield rule in play

Records about her testimony have been filed under seal but entries in the court file indicate prosecutors Kyle Hixson and Leslie Nassios want to challenge under the state’s rape shield rule just how much of the accuser’s sexual history the defense can seek to examine at the upcoming trial of Johnson and Williams on charges of aggravated rape.

More:Supreme Court backs A.J. Johnson's bid to see alleged victim's social media

More:Motion: Ex-Vol A.J. Johnson's accuser supported his consensual sex claim in statement

The shield rule was enacted to prevent accused rapists from trying to paint their accusers as sexually promiscuous or to otherwise sexually shame their accusers as a strategy to sway jurors and silence victims.

Deputy District Attorney General Kyle Hixson is shown in an undated photo.

Johnson and Williams are accused of raping the female UT athlete during a party at Johnson’s apartment after a UT game in November 2014. The former Vols say the sex was consensual and that the accuser, who was dating another football player while carrying on a side affair with Johnson, is lying.

Knox County Assistant District Attorney Leslie Nassios during the second murder trial of Norman Eugene Clark, accused of killing his girlfriend, Brittany Eldridge, and their unborn son in Dec 2011. The trial is in Knox County Criminal Court before Judge Steven Sword Monday, Sep. 18, 2017.

Johnson’s defense team of Stephen Ross Johnson and Tom Dillard want to show jurors that Johnson and his accuser had been engaging in consensual sex in the months leading up to the party and had planned a tryst on the night of the party.

Because all records related to the accuser’s expected testimony Wednesday are under seal, it is unclear exactly what in the accuser’s sexual past the defense is seeking to introduce to jurors at the upcoming July trial.

Deleted accounts, ditched phones

Johnson’s attorneys and lawyer David Eldridge, who represents Williams, are also expected at Wednesday’s hearing to question why the accuser and her best friend, Anna Lawn, ditched their phones and deleted their social media accounts soon after the alleged rape.

Former Tennessee player A.J. Johnson heads to court with his attorney, Stephen Ross Johnson, on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at the City-County Building.

Lawn was with the accuser when she first went into Johnson’s bedroom but left when, she said, Williams tried to engage in sex with her. She is expected to be a key witness for the state.

The attorneys for Johnson and Williams have been battling for nearly three years to gain access to social media messages and posts as well as phone text messages by the accuser, Lawn and two other witnesses.

David Eldridge

They said whatever the accuser and her friends said via the internet before and after the alleged rape could help prove the accuser is lying. The defense also noted the accuser and her best friend — a key state witness — got rid of their phones after police asked about text messages and social media chatter.

Changing the law

Several witnesses told police there had been discussion about the allegations via Internet-based messaging, the defense argued, but the Knoxville Police Department failed to follow through with its warrant for that communication.

But the law didn’t address that kind of talk, and police didn’t preserve any of that Internet-based chatter. When attorneys for the two ex-players tried to get that information from the accuser and her friends via a subpoena, the state balked, saying the law didn’t allow it.

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee during the trial of William Riley Gaul Friday, May 4, 2018. Gaul, a former Maryville College football player, is charged in the 2016 shooting death of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend Emma Jane Walker.

McGee sided with the state but granted an emergency appeal because the law had not yet caught up with a society in which the primary form of communication is now Internet-based. There was no mention of Internet-based communication in the law on defense subpoenas.

More:Judge sets trial date in rape case against ex-Vols A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams

But the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals said talk is talk, whether through traditional means of recorded statements, handwritten notes and testimony, or today’s methods of text messages, Snapchats, tweets and Facebook posts and messages.

If police don’t bother to get all that Internet-based chatter, the court ruled, the defense has the right to go after it under the same laws at play for the traditional talk. That was legally groundbreaking in and of itself, opening the door for the accused statewide to seek such information when deemed material and relevant.

The state asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to step in, but the high court refused. The ruling allowing access to the social media of accusers and witnesses in criminal cases is now the law in Tennessee.