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Cleaves cleared: 'Thank you for giving me back my life'

Flint — When the fourth "not guilty" verdict was pronounced Tuesday in Genesee County Circuit Court, Mateen Cleaves let out sobs of relief.

"Thank you for giving me my life back," the former Michigan State basketball star told jurors who had just acquitted him of sexually assaulting a woman in a Flint-area motel nearly four years ago.

Cleaves, 41, had faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the charges against him: unlawful imprisonment, assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration, second-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Mateen Cleaves, a Flint native known for his roles as a Michigan State and NBA basketball player, smiles as he embraces his attorneys Michael, left, and Frank J. Manley as he celebrates receiving a not guilty verdict on all counts from the jury as he steps outside of the Genesee County Circuit Court on Tuesday.

Outside court, he proclaimed his innocence. "I've been waiting for this moment for four years," he told reporters. "I didn't do anything wrong."

Cleaves said he could not talk about the case for four years and that it "breaks my heart every day" to be portrayed as a rapist.

"Hearing that lie and being portrayed as an animal ... as a rapist," he said. "That the worst person you can be is a rapist. Rape is a bad thing ... but lying about rape is just as bad."

Cleaves said he's happy "the truth finally came out" and he's ready to get back to work and taking his son to football practice and going to the gym with him.

"I prayed every day to God that the truth would come out," said Cleaves, who also apologized to his wife: "I shouldn't have put her in this situation. She didn't deserve this."

"We've had the truth at our side and the truth set Mateen Cleaves free," said Frank Manley, co-counsel for Cleaves.

Mateen Cleaves speaks with reporters after being found not guilty of sexual assault charges: "I've been waiting for this moment for four years. I didn't do anything wrong."

Michael Manley, Cleaves' co-counsel, said the accuser "had her day in court."

"This case is put to bed. This case is put to rest and this man deserves his life back," he said.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberations just after 1:45 p.m. Tuesday and delivered its verdicts less a little more than two hours later.

Juror Michael Lambert said the verdict was swift because he and others on the panel didn't believe Cleaves' accuser. "Her testimony was consistent lies," Lambert said, adding that jurors thought the woman forgot key parts of her story too often.

Cleaves' sister, Monique Cleaves, said she never doubted he would be cleared. "I never felt in my mind he was guilty," she said.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, which presented the case against Cleaves, said after his acquittal: "We're disappointed in the jury's verdict but we respect their decision.

"We're proud of the tireless work of our prosecution team to get justice on behalf of the victim in this case," she said.

Cleaves' accuser, a Mount Morris resident who was in her mid-20s, said he had forced her to have sex in a room at the Knights Inn in Mundy Township early on Sept. 15, 2015, hours after meeting her at a charity golf outing. 

During closing arguments Tuesday morning, Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor David Champine said the woman did not want to have sex with Cleaves and told him so.

The woman told Cleaves she had a boyfriend, that he had a wife and child, and that nothing was going to happen between them, the prosecutor said.

But Cleaves wasn't going to take no for an answer and twice pulled the woman back into the motel room, he told jurors.

"You can see her in the video pulling away," Champine told jurors. " ... She was able to push him off in some way and get out of there. He grabs her and starts pulling her. You can see her in the video pulling away ... she doesn’t want to go back but his decision is he’s going to take her back."

After the alleged assault, Champine said, the woman "just wanted to go home. She wanted her mom and she wanted her boyfriend."

The testimony of the woman proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she was raped, said Champine.

"You have a multitude witness testimony," he said. "You have medical evidence, DNA evidence. You even have the police. You have her words on up on the stand ... four years later ... this is still difficult (for her)."

But Cleaves' defense team told jurors it was a clear case of consensual sex and that the woman was lying because she felt bad about cheating on her boyfriend with him.

"Regret is not rape," said defense attorney Michael Manley, echoing his brother and co-counsel's words from opening statements in the trial. Manley said not a "sliver of DNA" evidence backed up her claims of rape.

Michael Manley said the woman was not taking "accountability" for her actions while Cleaves has. The defense attorney says the woman willingly went to the motel with Cleaves and that she also decided to drink while there.

"It's very important that you look at the phone records too," Michael Manley told jurors Tuesday. "Mateen Cleaves texts (the woman's) boyfriend and he calls her best friend twice. You are not raping somebody and calling the boyfriend and (best friend). What you're trying to do is get her home because she is in a panic."

In rebuttal closing arguments, assistant Wayne County prosecutor Lisa Lindsey said "there were two escape attempts" from the motel room by the woman.

"(Cleaves) hears her pleas and ignores her (requests) to go home," said Lindsey, who said Cleaves told the woman, "I don't care," in response to her alleged pleas to go home.

Lindsey disagreed with Cleaves' defense team that he was trying to bring the woman back to the room to calm her down. But even if that were so, Cleaves should have let the woman make a call on his own cellphone, the prosecutor said.

"No woman is ever obligated to have sex," Lindsey said.

Mateen Cleaves shows a joyous smile as friends and family congratulate him on a not guilty verdict on the steps outside of the Genesee County Circuit Court on Tuesday.

The courtroom was packed Tuesday as Cleaves' relatives, friends and supporters listened to the final arguments in the trial, including Tom Izzo, who coached Cleaves at MSU.

Izzo said while he didn't know the circumstances or details around the allegations surrounding his former standout player, he was there to give support to Cleaves as he would "any of my guys."

Detroit businessman Robert Carmack also was among the court spectators, saying that he, like Cleaves, had been falsely accused of criminal activity. Carmack is awaiting trial on charges that he defrauded the city of Detroit in a land deal.

The closing arguments were held a week after the start of the trial before Judge Celeste Bell.

The Detroit News does not typically identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted.

During testimony at the preliminary examination for Cleaves in November 2016, a guest at the motel testified that she saw a man, later identified as Cleaves, dragging a woman back into a room.

The guest said the woman was begging and crying hysterically: "Help me! Help me! Help me!"

The woman testified during the trial last week.

The Mount Morris woman said during her testimony at the preliminary examination that she had gone to a gathering at a bar with Cleaves at the Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, where the golf event was held.

The woman said she and Cleaves stopped at a gas station and that she fell asleep before waking up in a room at the motel with him. She said he began kissing her and that she told Cleaves she had a boyfriend.

The woman said she told Cleaves she “wanted to go home” but admitted she kissed him even after saying that.

“He started kissing me. I kissed him back, and I remember being on the bed,” the woman said. She said she didn’t want to be “rude” to Cleaves, a former NBA player and celebrity donor to her employer because she didn’t want her rejection of his advances to affect her job.

In December 2016, Genesee District Judge M. Cathy Dowd, now retired, dismissed all charges against Cleaves, saying "there are a number of factors that led (her) to believe something else was going on" between Cleaves and the woman.

But Cleaves was ordered in 2017 to stand trial after now-retired Genesee Circuit Court Judge Archie Hayman ruled following an appeal from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office that Dowd "did abuse her discretion of power" in dismissing the case against Cleaves.

Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review Hayman's decision to reinstatement the charges against Cleaves.

The case was tried by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office after Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton recused himself, citing a conflict of interest.

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