Prosecutor: Former Vanderbilt player encouraged rape

Sheila Burke
Associated Press

Nashville, Tenn. — A former Vanderbilt football player encouraged his teammates to have sex with an unconscious woman he had been dating, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.

During opening statements in the retrial of Brandon Vandenburg, the prosecutor said the former player even passed out the condoms to three teammates before she was raped. He said the attack came after the football player plied the female student with alcohol.

Vandenburg, a 22-year-old former tight end from Indio, California, is not accused of having sex with the victim in the dorm on the Nashville campus in June 2013. But prosecutors maintain that he should be held responsible for what other players did to the woman because he encouraged it and was part of the crime.

Lawyers told jurors they would see graphic evidence that included cellphone videos and photos that players took of the female student during the attack.

Vandenburg took the videos, Deputy District Attorney General Tom Thurman told jurors.

“He’s giving instructions, encouraging, and then you’ll hear him laughing,” Thurman said. “He thinks it’s hilarious.”

The retrial comes against the backdrop of a furor over the six-month sentence a former Stanford University swimmer received after being convicted of sexual assault. The cases at two of America’s elite universities are part of broader national debate about sexual assaults on college and university campuses.

Vandenburg’s defense, however, maintains that the other three players are to blame.

Defense attorney Randy Reagan said Vandenburg was a 19-year-old newly arrived recruit from a small desert town in California who had been introduced to a culture of drinking and partying at the school by mentors on the football team. He said a female booster often spent hundreds of dollars on rounds of drinks for players at a popular Nashville nightclub and had bought drinks for the victim.

Vandenburg, the lawyer said, had been drinking from the morning into the early hours of the next day when he asked football players that he didn’t know to help him carry the unconscious woman up to his dorm room. The other players, Reagan said, were immediately all over the 21-year-old student as soon as they got her in the room.

Nobody disputes what happened to the woman was terrible, the lawyer said.

“Mr. Vandenburg maybe could have stopped it,” Reagan told jurors. “But the state is asking you to find Mr. Vandenburg criminally responsible for the actions of people he didn’t know minutes before all this happened.”

The defense attorney said the videos jurors would see are “horrible” but asked them not to close their minds.

The former tight end had tried to use an expert witness for rebuttal who was prepared to testify that the combination of brain trauma from concussions Vandenburg suffered playing football and alcohol intoxication would have severely altered the former player’s judgment. However, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins said jurors could not hear the testimony because the Knoxville psychiatrist had not examined Vandenburg, was not an export on toxicology and had arrived at his conclusions based on an email from the defense.

Vandenburg is charged with five counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of unlawful photography.

He and former teammate Cory Batey were tried and convicted by a jury last year, but the verdicts were thrown out after lawyers discovered the jury foreman had been a victim of statutory rape.

Batey was retried in April and found guilty of aggravated rape and other charges. He is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Two other players have yet to be tried and are not currently scheduled to go to trial.