HONOLULU (AP) — A federal jury on Wednesday found a man not guilty 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 pulled tissues from a box on the defense table and cried as each juror was polled and said they found him not guilty of misdemeanor assault in connection with an incident last November at McMurdo Station. Jurors deliberated for 1-1/2 hours after a day in which Bieneman testified that he didn’t initiate the incident or harm the woman.
“It’s taken a huge toll on my reputation,” he said outside the courtroom. “This vindicates him,” said his attorney, Birney Bervar.
The verdict came amid increased scrutiny of McMurdo. An Associated Press investigation in August uncovered a pattern of women at McMurdo who said their claims of sexual harassment or assault were minimized by their employers, often leading to them or others being put in further danger.
Last week, the watchdog office overseeing the National Science Foundation said it was sending investigators to McMurdo as it expands its investigative mission to include alleged crimes such as sexual assault and stalking.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mohammad Khatib told jurors this week in U.S. District Court in Honolulu that Bieneman got on top of the woman after she took his nametag from his coat as a joke. The prosecutor said Bieneman pinned her down and put his shin across her throat, preventing her from being able to breathe.
In his closing argument Wednesday, Khatib said Bieneman could have seriously injured or killed the woman.
Bieneman, a field safety coordinator trained in conducting searches and rescues, testified that the woman “kind of immediately got in my face” when he returned to a dormitory lounge after celebrating his birthday and Thanksgiving with a group. According to his testimony, she had cursed at him and was upset she wasn’t invited to the gathering.
At one point he left the lounge to return a key to a hut he used for the party. When he returned, he noticed one of the alcoholic seltzers he left behind was open. He said he asked the woman if she took it, and she said she also took his nametag.
“I said, ‘Hey that’s not cool … please give it back,’” Bieneman testified. “She said, ‘You’re going to have to fight me for it.’” He said she grabbed his arms and fell onto her back while holding on to him.
“She was using all of her strength against me to prevent me from getting my nametag back,” he testified.
Bieneman denied putting his shin on her neck.
“Not only did I not assault her I was trying my absolute hardest not to hurt her,” he said.
Dr. Christopher Martinez, the physician who later examined the woman, testified Wednesday that he had expressed doubts that she was assaulted. Under cross-examination by Khatib, the doctor denied trivializing her complaints of pain.
After the incident, Bieneman was sent to a remote icefield 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 for his arrest was issued, documents obtained by the AP show.
The professor wrote in a complaint that Bieneman was “domineering and critical” of the two female graduate students at the camp and that he told them he had had a fight with a woman at McMurdo. The professor wrote that they were astounded to find he was assigned to the team when it was already known that he was under investigation.
Bieneman said outside of court that he was surprised by the professor’s complaint. “I thought I had a good relationship with them,” he said. “I felt I kept them safe and worked hard.”
The National Science Foundation declined to answer AP’s questions about why Bieneman was sent out into the field in a critical safety role while under investigation. The case raised further questions about decision-making in the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is under scrutiny.
Bervar, Bieneman’s attorney, said after the trial that the scrutiny unfairly led to his client being charged.
The prosecutor said he was disappointed by the verdict. “We felt like we had a righteous case,” Khatib said.