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Jury acquits former MCF-Red Wing guard

There was an audible sigh of relief from Suzanne Marie Walstrom's friends and family as five not guilty verdicts were read in Goodhue County District Court Wednesday afternoon.

Walstrom, 39, a former Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing guard, was accused of having sexual relationships with three inmates while she worked at the prison. She faced one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and four counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

But all of that disappeared Wednesday when a jury of seven men and five women, who'd listened to eight days of arguments and testimony, re-entered the courtroom after just more than two hours of deliberation.

"We're glad the jury didn't take long to see the inconsistencies," Walstrom's attorney Ryan Pacyga said outside the courtroom.

He was referring to discrepancies in the testimonies of Walstrom's three accusers, who each took the stand during the trial. Pacyga extensively outlined those inconsistencies in closing statements, which began Wednesday morning.

They centered on changes in the boys' stories from when they first reported sexual misconduct to what they said on the witness stand during the trial. Pacyga pointed out changes in where the accusers said the alleged incidents occurred and who may have seen them.

Pacyga continued, likening the accusers to a pack of wolves who prey on weaker animals.

"What they discovered was that Ms. Walstrom was an easy target," he said.

Pacyga said the offenders had a "master plan" to get Walstrom convicted of sexual conduct and then file civil lawsuits against her demanding money for damages.

Two of the accusers filed civil lawsuits against Walstrom in March 2011. The Minnesota courts website lists both cases as "closed administratively" as of May 2011. While there has been no action in those cases recently, Pacyga said they could be reopened.

"They knew if they got a conviction here, they had a homerun in their civil case," Pacyga said.

Assistant Goodhue County Attorney Erin Kuester countered in her closing arguments that the accusers had no "master plan" to gain money.

"There are ways when you know the streets to make fast and easy money," she said. Kuester added that an investigation ending in a jury trial is not one of those ways.

"This master plan really isn't reasonable and it lacks a lot of common sense," she said.

In addition, Kuester said that because the accusers were convicted felons, they knew that their characters and pasts would be judged during the trial and that it was difficult for them to testify.

"They knew that their history would follow them here," she said. "All three said, 'I'm embarrassed. I don't want to be here."

After the not guilty verdict came Wednesday, Kuester thanked the jury for their time.

"I'm grateful for all the hard work the jury put in," she said. "It was obviously a difficult case, and I'm grateful for their time."

Charges were originally filed against Walstrom in April 2010. The trial began nearly two years later, on April 9, with a full week of jury selection. Opening statements came April 16.

After the verdict was read, Walstrom dabbed at tears and hugged her friends and family, including her 16-year-old daughter.

"It's a big sigh of relief," Shane Walstrom, Suzanne's husband, said Friday. He also thanked the jury for the quick acquittal.

"Now we feel we can get on with our lives. We're completely relieved and happy again."

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.