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Former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon has prevailed over charges she lied about what she knew about serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar, with a judge ruling prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence to take the criminal case against her to trial.

Eaton County Judge John Maurer on Wednesday dismissed charges against Simon, a move one lawyer called"a gut punch" to hundreds of women abused by Nassar.

“The prosecution did not provide evidence sufficient to give a reasonable person probable cause to believe that Dr. Simon knew during her 2018 interview that her purported knowledge in 2014 of Dr. Nassar's name and the ‘nature’ and ‘substance’ of the complaint against him” were relevant to the 2018 investigation, the judge said.

The Michigan Attorney General's Office said it planned to appeal the decision.

"We’re still thoroughly reviewing the opinion of the court, but we believe the district court judge that heard the testimony of the state’s witnesses firsthand and bound Dr. Simon over for trial made the right decision," spokesman Ryan Jarvi said. "We plan to appeal the circuit court’s decision to the Court of Appeals."

Lee Silver, Simon's lawyer, hailed the move, saying the case should never have been brought against the longtime MSU president, who stepped down from her post at the height of the Nassar scandal in January 2018.

"The court's ruling completely vindicates Dr. Simon and confirms what we have been saying from the day these charges were brought; namely, that there was not a shred of credible evidence to support these charges."

But the decision provoked a backlash among Nassar's victims.

Sarah Klein, the first woman believed to have been abused by Nassar, called the decision "beyond disturbing and quite frankly, despicable."

"This ruling sends a message loud and clear to anyone in charge of a university that if you allow thousands of people to get raped on your campus that you can get away with it," Klein said. "It is an insult to everyone’s intelligence who is familiar with this case."

She said Nassar began abusing her when she was 8 years old and continued throughout her childhood and young adult life.

"It occurred thousands of times," Klein said. "Simon was in a position to stop it and did nothing. We all know and are aware that Simon knew about Nassar and did nothing." 

Simon, MSU's first female president — who retired from the MSU faculty last August after 45 years — stepped down as president under public pressure. Her departure from her post came in the middle of nine days of testimony by scores of women in two courtrooms who said Nassar had assaulted them while working as an MSU and USA Gymnastics physician.

Soon after Simon's resignation as president, police interviewed her about what she knew.

Prosecutors alleged Simon lied to police regarding the extent of her knowledge of allegations against Nassar,who is now imprisoned for life.

Simon faced a preliminary hearing and was heading to trial after other high-profile leaders had faced consequenceslinked to Nassar.

Simon's lawyer recently submitted a motion to quash the bind-over for trial, and Maurer dismissed the four counts against Simon.

"In its 24-page opinion, the court carefully considered the evidence developed over the course of seven days of testimony and concluded that the case against her was built on nothing more than speculation and conjecture, and that the evidence was wholly inadequate to prove that any crime had been committed by Dr. Simon," Silver said.

Okemos-based lawyer Mick Grewal — who represented scores of women who sued MSU and other institutions for failing to protect them against Nassar — said it was rare for a judge to quash a decision sending a case from district court to trial and dismiss the charges. He added he is glad that the decision is being appealed.

"People still need to be held accountable," Grewal said.

Simon was charged with two felony and two misdemeanor counts of lying to a peace officer related to whether she knew the content of allegations made against Nassar in 2014. The felony charges carried up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Simon told police in May 2018 that she knew an MSU sports medicine doctor was “under review” but knew “nothing of substance” beyond that, police have testified.

When she retired, she retained the titles of president emeritus and faculty emeritus and was set to receive three annual payments for a total gross amount of $2.45 million, as well as other benefits.

Other MSU officials have faced repercussions for their roles involving Nassar, including William Strampel, the former dean of the MSU osteopathic medical school and Nassar's boss.

Strampel was imprisoned for seven months then released early after being convicted of two counts of willful neglect of duty linked to his supervision of Nassar and one count of misconduct in office related to inappropriate comments he made to female students. 

Former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was convicted in February on felony and misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators about what she knew about Nassar's sexual abuse and when she knew it. She is awaiting sentencing.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, called the judge's decision to dismiss the case against Simon "deeply disappointing." She said the action highlights why MSU needed to allow an independent, third-party investigation.

She and other Nassar survivors have called on the university to authorize such an inquiry to examine the culture that allowed Nassar to prey on young women, and went beyond criminal behavior. The Board of Trustees decided last June to hire an outside firm to conduct the investigation but it reversed its decision a few months later because members were split over the scope of the inquiry.

"We already knew that a lot of the missteps were not going to be prosecuted, and that is why we needed answers from a third party," Denhollander said. "It highlights MSU’s lack of transparency and the continued insistence on a coverup."

California-based lawyer John Manly, who also represented scores of women abused by Nassar, said the district court found sufficient evidence to bind Simon over for trial, and her guilt or innocence should have been left to a jury.

"This is yet another failure of the justice system in the Nassar case," he said. "This is a gut punch by the judge to every survivor of Larry Nassar."

He added that the decision lays bear a two-tiered justice system in the U.S. that treats the rich and powerful one way and others differently.

"The powerful and politically connected won this round," Manly said. "However, I am very hopeful this will be appealed and that ultimately the survivors will prevail."

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said that "out of respect for the judicial process, we are not going to comment on the proceedings."

"MSU remains committed to the changes needed that ensure a stronger, safer and more respectful campus community for all students, faculty and staff," she said. 

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Robert Snell contributed.

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