|Thursday, March 27
Attorney: Puckett was only trying to help woman
MINNEAPOLIS -- Pausing several times and fighting back tears, a woman testified Thursday that she struggled against a violent attack by former Twins star Kirby Puckett that left her afraid she would be raped.
On the first day of Puckett's trial on sexual assault and other charges, jurors began sifting through two different versions of what happened in a suburban restaurant on Sept. 6.
His accuser said Puckett grabbed her arm shortly after midnight and began tugging her toward the bathroom.
"He's pulling me, and I'm afraid,'' she testified. "I tried to drag my feet.'' At the bathroom door, she said, she tried to hook her ankle around the doorway but Puckett forced her inside. He forced her into a stall and grabbed her breast before she escaped, she said.
Puckett's version, laid out in attorney Todd Jones' opening statement, is that Puckett was only trying to escort the woman into the men's bathroom because the women's bathroom was full. The woman changed her mind and left after seeing that there were other men in the bathroom, Jones said.
"There are only two people who really know what happened in that space, and you're going to hear from both of them,'' Jones said. He urged jurors to remember that the state has to prove its case.
"Kirby Puckett doesn't have to prove his innocence,'' Jones said.
Puckett, the Hall of Famer whose playing career was cut short by blindness in one eye, is accused of attacking the woman at the Redstone American Grill in Eden Prairie. He's charged with false imprisonment, a felony; fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a gross misdemeanor; and fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Prosecutors say they'll seek probation and no more than a year in jail if he's convicted on all counts.
Puckett has maintained his innocence. He sat quietly in the courtroom Thursday.
The alleged victim, a 34-year-old loan officer from suburban Bloomington, began her testimony by describing what she had to drink that night: a sip of wine and two rum-and-cokes over a period of about three hours.
Once they were inside the bathroom, she testified, Puckett tried to push her into two stalls, but each had a man inside. He finally threw her into a third stall, and grabbed her breast from behind, she said.
The woman said she was able to break away when Puckett was startled by her friend screaming for her from the bathroom doorway.
She said she reported the attack to the restaurant's management, and eventually pointed out her attacker. She said she didn't know it was Puckett. She dialed 911 when management told her to call police, she said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Christopher Madel raised questions about inconsistencies in the woman's statements to police and to doctors, and in statements her friends gave police. And he showed the jury a map that showed only two stalls in the men's restroom.
As Madel highlighted another supposed inconsistency, the woman said: "While it was happening, I was so afraid. To tell you the truth, I focused on how fat he was and how strong. I thought he was going to rape me.''
The prosecution displayed pictures that appeared to show slight bruises on the woman's arm and ankle. A digital picture that police took of the woman's breast was not preserved. Prosecutor Alan Harris said the jury would hear testimony that the officer didn't save the digital image properly.
The woman also testified that she hasn't spoken to a lawyer about the possibility of suing Puckett. She was not asked if she was considering it.
One of her companions that night was Tammy McEachern, who estimated the incident lasted only about 20 seconds. She testified they were together near the restrooms when Puckett suddenly grabbed the woman's hand and asked "You want to go in the men's bathroom?'' She said her friend said no, but Puckett continued, "C'mon, I'll take you in there.''
McEachern said she grabbed her friend's other hand to try to stop Puckett from dragging her in. "It was like a tug of war,'' she said, adding that she couldn't hold on. "I didn't want to rip her arm off.''
She said she watched as her 5-foot-2 friend resisted.
"She was trying to hold on to whatever she could -- the wall or the bathroom door -- to stop from going in there,'' McEachern said. She also said she could see Puckett "body checking her into the stall.''
McEachern said Puckett froze when she yelled her friend's name, and the woman was able to slip past him and escape. She said her friend told her, "You saved my life.''
Puckett was one of Minnesota's most beloved sports heroes before his image was tarnished by reports about the ugly breakup of his marriage, followed by the criminal charges.