Jury selection delayed by closed-door hearing in trial of ex-Vol A.J. Johnson, ex-teammate

A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, back, were back in court Monday, July 16, 2018 accused of raping a female athlete.

A judge on Monday held another closed-door hearing in the aggravated rape case filed against former University of Tennessee star linebacker A.J. Johnson and an ex-teammate on what was supposed to be the beginning trial.

Johnson and former teammate Michael Williams are set to stand trial this week in Knox County Criminal Court on charges they raped a female UT athlete during a party at Johnson’s South Knoxville apartment in November 2014.

A panel of more than 100 potential jurors were summoned Monday, but most were sent home to return Tuesday after Judge Bob McGee spent the morning and early afternoon hearing motions behind closed doors in the case.

Rape shield law locks door

McGee cited the state’s rape shield law as cause for closing the hearing. That law states, “The court shall hold a hearing in chambers or otherwise out of the hearing of the public and the jury to determine whether the evidence described in the motion is admissible.”

The motion at issue is under seal, too, but records indicate defense attorneys for Johnson and Williams – Stephen Ross Johnson and David Eldridge, respectively, as lead counsel for each ex-Vol – want to question their accuser about her prior sexual relationship with Johnson and another UT player she was dating at the time of the alleged rape.

The shield law is intended to spare rape accusers public humiliation or embarrassment by limiting just what about their sexual history is fair game for cross-examination and how much of that past should be aired in public.

This is the second time in the past several months that McGee has closed the courtroom for hearings related to the accuser’s past sexual history. All motions and any rulings related to that prior hearing remain under seal.

Jury selection set for Tuesday

Johnson and Williams are accused of raping the woman in Johnson’s bedroom during a party in November 2014 at his apartment after the Vols won a game. Johnson and Williams contend the encounter was consensual.

A.J. Johnson's attorney Steve Johnson, second from right, and Michael Williams' attorney David Eldridge, right, during a bench conference with Judge Bob McGee and prosecutors Leslie Nassios and Kyle Hixson Monday, July 16, 2018.

The case had been on hold as the ex-players’ defenders pushed for access to the social media and phone history of the accuser, her best friend and two other female athletes on the state’s witness list. The accuser and her best friend, Anna Lawn, ditched their phones and shut down their social media accounts soon after the allegations went public.

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

The players contend that information is vital to proving their accuser is lying, but the Knoxville Police Department did not follow through with a search warrant for that information. The players’ attorneys sought to retrieve the information directly from the accuser and the other three witnesses, but prosecutors Leslie Nassios and Kyle Hixson balked.

The state Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately ruled the pair were entitled to the information – a ruling that now opens the door for all defendants to seek similar information if they can prove it is both material and relevant.

McGee said Monday afternoon that he expects jury selection to begin in earnest Tuesday morning. Both sides late Monday were polling a handful of potential jurors whose answers on jury questionnaires were “flagged” for closer scrutiny.