It took jurors roughly two hours to return a not-guilty verdict in a rape case Wednesday in Yellowstone County District Court.
Jurors acquitted Isaac Nolan Blackhorse, 31, of sexual intercourse without consent and witness tampering. Blackhorse was released from custody after the verdict was read.
Blackhorse was accused of raping a 30-year-old woman in September and returning days later to his friend’s apartment where the alleged incident took place to pressure the friend not to appear in court.
The trial, heard before District Court Judge Don Harris, began Monday.
“It was a long and hard-fought case and I think the jury looked at the evidence and really got an understanding of the scene and what was important in this case,” said defense attorney Lisa Bazant.
Prosecutor Morgan Dake said she was not surprised at the verdict, because it’s a heavy burden to prove an adult rape case to a jury.
In 2017, while 60 rapes were reported to law enforcement in Yellowstone County, none were prosecuted. County officials have said the problem owes to hesitation on the part of victims to proceed and juries’ reluctance to convict in rape cases.
“Our office is proud of our decision to try some of these hard cases, because we never have an adult sex case that’s cut and dry,” she said.
Dake added that overcoming stigma against rape victims and outdated ideas about what constitutes rape would be an ongoing challenge.
“And we can’t not take them,” she said of rape cases. “It’s so rare that we have one that’s even viable at all, so when we have one that’s viable, we want to take it.”
The alleged victim was not present for the trial. The woman is homeless and police were unable to find her to serve a subpoena. She may even have been unaware the trial was happening, prosecutors said.
Instead, jurors heard from the apartment resident and friend of Blackhorse who called 911 on the night of the incident. They heard from the paramedic who responded and the Billings Police Department investigator who handled the case. Three crime lab experts testified about the alleged victim’s intoxication levels and about DNA evidence in the case.
Defense attorneys called to the stand a victim witness coordinator who works for the county as well as Blackhorse, the defendant.
The case was charged in October, just a day after a new law took effect in Montana regarding sexual violence. Proponents said the change better reflects the nature of rape and the fact that victims sometimes freeze up and do not physically resist unwanted sex.
But because the incident took place on Sept. 10 before the laws changed, the state still had to prove the alleged victim was physically helpless, Dake clarified on Wednesday. Only incidents occurring after Oct. 1, 2017, will be tried under the new law.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Ashley Harada stressed that the sex in this case was consensual, arguing that the victim knew her relationship with Blackhorse revolved primarily around sex and that she had taken steps that night in anticipation of having sex.
“This shows a woman who’s walking, talking, making conscious decisions about herself,” she said.
Harada added that toxicology reports showed the alleged victim had a blood alcohol content of 0.247, and that state crime lab experts testified that they had previously worked on a DUI case in which the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.51.
But people operate differently at the same blood alcohol levels, and emergency responders were initially unable to revive the woman using pain tactics like a sternum rub, Dake said. She was unconscious when medical responders arrived, she added.
“Just because your relationship with someone has historically been about sex doesn’t mean they get to have sex with you when you’re physically helpless and unconscious, to the point that (American Medical Response) can’t wake you up,” Dake said. “That’s not consent.”
After trial began, the state dismissed count No. 2, which was attempted sexual intercourse without consent and was to be considered as an alternative to the rape charge.
After the verdict was read, Blackhorse and his defense team exchanged hugs.