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Jury finds man not guilty of assaulting woman at US Antarctic research station

HONOLULU — A federal jury found a man not guilty Wednesday of assaulting a woman at a U.S. research station in Antarctica in a case that drew attention amid reports of harassment and assault at the station.

Stephen Tyler Bieneman took tissues out of a box on the defense table and cried as each juror was questioned and said they found him not guilty of misdemeanor assault in connection with an incident in November last at McMurdo station. Jurors deliberated for an hour and a half after a day in which Bieneman testified that he did not instigate the incident or harm the woman.

“It has tarnished my reputation enormously,” he said outside the courtroom. “This justifies it,” said his lawyer, Birney Bervar.

The verdict came amid increased scrutiny of McMurdo. In August, an Associated Press investigation found that McMurdo women said their allegations of sexual harassment or assault were downplayed by their employers, often putting them or others in danger.

Last week, the watchdog office overseeing the National Science Foundation announced it was sending investigators to McMurdo as part of expanding its investigative mission to include alleged crimes such as sexual assault and harassment criminal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mohammad Khatib told jurors in U.S. District Court in Honolulu this week that Bieneman grabbed the woman after she took his badge from his coat as a joke. The prosecutor said Bieneman pinned her and put his shin to her throat, preventing her from breathing.

In his closing argument Wednesday, Khatib said Bieneman could have seriously injured or killed the woman.

Bieneman, a field security coordinator trained in conducting search and rescue, testified that the woman “immediately got in my face” when he returned to a dorm living room after celebrating his birthday and Thanksgiving with a group. According to her testimony, she had insulted him and was upset that she had not been invited to the gathering.

At one point, he left the living room to return the key to a cabin he was using for the party. When he returned, he noticed that one of the alcoholic drinks he had left behind was open. He said he asked the woman if she took it, and she said she took his badge as well.

“I said, ‘Hey, that’s not cool…please give it back,'” Bieneman testified. “She said, ‘You’re going to have to fight me for this.’ » He said she grabbed his arms and fell on his back while holding him.

McMurdo Station, an American research station on Antarctica in 2014.National Science Foundation/AP file

“She used all her strength against me to prevent me from getting my badge back,” he testified.

Bieneman denied putting his shin on his neck.

“Not only did I not assault her, but I did my best not to hurt her,” he said.

Dr. Christopher Martinez, the doctor who later examined the woman, said Wednesday that he expressed doubt that she had been assaulted. Cross-examined by Khatib, the doctor denied having trivialized his complaints of pain.

After the incident, Bieneman was sent to a remote ice field where he was tasked with protecting the safety of a professor and three young graduate students. He remained there for a full week after a warrant was issued for his arrest, according to documents obtained by the AP.

The professor wrote in a complaint that Bieneman was “domineering and critical” of the two graduate students at the camp and that he told them he had gotten into an argument with a woman at McMurdo. The professor wrote that they were stunned to learn that he had been assigned to the team when it was already known that he was under investigation.

Bieneman said outside court that he was surprised by the professor’s complaint. “I thought I had a good relationship with them,” he said. “I felt like I was keeping them safe and working hard. »

The National Science Foundation declined to answer AP’s questions about why Bieneman was sent to the field in a critical security role while he was under investigation. The case raises further questions about decision-making in the U.S. Antarctic program, which is under scrutiny.

Bervar, Bieneman’s lawyer, said after the trial that the scrutiny unfairly led to his client’s indictment.

The prosecutor said he was disappointed by the verdict. “We felt like we had a fair case,” Khatib said.

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