Former USD student avoids rape trial by pleading guilty

Former USD student avoids rape trial by pleading guilty
A former University of South Dakota student has pleaded guilty to raping a woman on the campus in Vermillion last fall.

Court proceedings were scheduled to begin Wednesday before a jury in the Clay County Courthouse in Vermillion to determine if Zachary Larson, 19, of Blaine, MN, was guilty of two counts of second-degree rape.

Larson avoided a trial by changing his plea on one rape count to guilty.

In an agreement forged between Larson's attorney, Phil Peterson of Beresford, and Clay County State's Attorney Teddi Gertsma, the second rape count was dropped, and the jury trial was canceled in exchange for the guilty plea.

Last October, Larson pleaded not guilty in First Circuit Court to both charges of second-degree rape.

Second-degree rape is a Class I felony which carries a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.

Larson was initially charged in connection with an alleged incident early Sept. 14, 2007 involving an 18-year-old female in a USD dorm room.

Larson was arrested on the USD campus Sept. 19 and imprisoned on the one count in the Clay County Jail in Vermillion.

However, during the course of local law enforcement's investigation, another alleged incident was discovered, resulting in the second charge.

According to court documents, the first alleged incident involved a victim identified as "C.W." and occurred on or about Sept. 13 in Clay County. The second alleged incident involved a victim identified as "C.M." and occurred on or about Sept. 14 in Clay County.

At least one of the incidents, local law enforcement reported last fall, occurred in Beede Hall on the USD campus.

The indictment was filed Oct. 10, and Larson appeared Oct. 12 and pleaded not guilty to both charges.

He has remained free since on $2,500 bail. He also ended his studies at USD and returned to Minnesota.

Larson appeared before First Circuit Judge Arthur Rusch Wednesday.

The judge made sure that Larson understood his rights before entering his plea, telling the defendant that by pleading guilty, he would waive his presumption of innocence, his right against self-incrimination, and his right to complain about what he may believe would be errors or mistakes in the handling of his case.

Larson replied that he understood the consequences of his guilty plea.

Peterson and Gertsma noted that the agreement was limited to dropping one count of rape and canceling the trial. Sentencing was not included.

Peterson offered the grand jury testimony of the victim identified as "C.M." as a factual basis for the plea agreement.

Rusch reviewed the testimony during Wednesday's hearing, and noted that Larson was intoxicated at the time the offense occurred.

"We have researched this," Peterson said, "and we have concluded that the fact that he was intoxicated would not be a legal defense to the crime. It would not be a viable defense."

Rusch ordered that a pre-sentence investigation that includes a psychosexual evaluation of Larson be conducted.

Larson remains free on a $2,500 cash bond. Provisions of his freedom include signing a waiver of extradition, and the continuation of an order that he have no contact with the two women named as victims in this case.

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