GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A Grand Forks man sexually assaulted a teenager after giving her sleeping medication, a jury found Friday, Jan. 12, but he's been acquitted on accusations that he raped the girl and forced her to have oral sex.
George Robert Lyons, 37, was found guilty Friday in Grand Forks District Court on one Class AA felony count of gross sexual imposition. The jury determined it could not convict him on the two other charges with the same classification.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.
The ruling came after prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Lyons in June. The charge in which he was convicted claimed he inappropriately touched a girl multiple times after giving her sleeping pills between July 2009 and January 2010 at her Grand Forks home, according to court documents. The charges that failed to see a conviction said he had vaginal sex with the girl before forcing her to have oral sex.
Wednesday was the only day in the three-day trial that attorneys questioned witnesses on the stand. A Thursday blizzard delayed the trial until Friday, when attorneys wrapped up their closing arguments around 10:30 a.m. Jurors returned their verdict just before 6:30 p.m.
Judge John Thelen ordered a pre-sentencing investigation to be completed before he sentences Lyons on May 14.
'She wasn't dreaming'
The victim, now an adult, told jurors Lyons would give her sleeping pills under the guise of needing to clean her ears, an activity which she was too frightened to do while awake. He sometimes sedated the victim without her knowledge by crushing the pills and putting them in dark-colored drinks or glasses. This happened at night at least once a week for several months, the victim testified, adding Lyons used the opportunity to sexaully abuse her.
Lyons was the only person to testify on his behalf. He denied the allegations, saying the victim and others lied.
Prosecutors called the victim, her mother, a neighbor, a friend of the victim and criminal investigators to the stand and submitted only two exhibits as evidence: a drawing of the apartment where the acts allegedly occurred and a timeline of the events.
The victim said she would wake up in pain after each event and tried to tell multiple people, including her mother, what was happening. She gave up hope because she was told she was dreaming.
"She knew she wasn't dreaming," Jeremy Ensrud, a prosecutor with the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, said in closing arguments. "You don't get physical pain from dreams."
The prosecution painted Lyons as a deceptive man who wanted to push his boundaries to assert his power over a teenage girl.
Defense: Victim's story changed
The defense tried to exploit inconsistencies in investigative interviews with witnesses compared to testimony given in court, saying the victim's and her friend's recollections of the details in the case evolved and became more detailed over time. Defense attorney Steven Mottinger questioned how Lyons could sexually assault a girl multiple times with her mother in the next room. The mother would have tried to protect her daughter if she believed the alleged acts were true, Mottinger said.
The victim was uncertain whether the acts happened, Mottinger explained in his closing arguments, adding the state's attorney declined to prosecute the case when it was first brought to the office in 2010.
"If she was not sure then, how can you find her to be sure now?" he asked the jury.
Doubts about the alleged acts were put into the victim's head by others, Ensrud said. The victim and others had nothing to gain by testifying, let alone lying, in court, he added.
"People don't ... lie to get into trouble," he said. "They lie to get out of trouble."
Mottinger agreed Lyons' disciplinary practices of the victim may have been "unorthodox at best or plain uncalled for." Lyons admitted to feeding her baby food in place of other food when she refused to brush her teeth. But the defense argued Lyons is on trial for gross sexual imposition, not "for being a lousy father figure."
"No one is suggesting the alleged conduct isn't wrong," Mottinger said. "But just because it is wrong, doesn't mean it lessens the burden of proof."
Case in Polk County
Lawyers with the North Dakota Attorney General's Office took over the case because of "a potential conflict of interest stemming from a prior relationship between Mr. Lyons and one of our personnel," Grand Forks County State's Attorney David Jones said in an email to the Herald.
The Herald typically does not identify accusers or victims in sexual assault cases unless they make their names public.
A Class A felony charge of gross sexual imposition in the case was dismissed. That stemmed from an investigation in Arvilla, North Dakota, prior to the Grand Forks incidents.
Lyons also faces first-degree and second-degree criminal sexual conduct charges in Polk County, where he is accused of sexually abusing a person younger than 16 in 2014 in East Grand Forks. The charges, filed in December 2015, appear to be unrelated to the case in Grand Forks.
In that case, he faces up to 30 years in prison for the first-degree charge and a maximum of 25 years in prison on the second-degree charge.