Content warning: This article contains the use of graphic sexual language.
Correction 12/5: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Peter Chen is a former professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. Chen is still employed by the University and has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 2021.
The jury trial for Peter Chen, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, began Monday morning at the Washtenaw County 22nd Circuit Court in downtown Ann Arbor.
Chen is charged with criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, defined as an act of sexual penetration with a victim under the age of 13, a felony punishable by life in prison. The case filing states that the offense began on April 1, 2017. The alleged victim, who is a minor, is set to testify in the trial later in the week. Chen is pleading not guilty.
Originally set to begin in January 2022, the trial was delayed several times before commencing Nov. 28. Judge Darlene O’Brien, the judicial officer presiding over the case, said she anticipated that the trial would take four to five days.
Amy Reiser, Washtenaw County’s assistant prosecuting attorney, is representing the prosecution, the People of the State of Michigan. Reiser was accompanied by Sergeant Dawn Murphy from the Ann Arbor Police Department. Attorney Mariell Lehman is representing Chen, the defendant.
The first day of the trial consisted primarily of jury selection, in which 12 jurors were to be chosen from a pool of approximately four dozen to sit on the panel. During the jury selection process, the judge and both attorneys questioned the jury pool to determine who would be suited to deliberate the case.
O’Brien asked potential jurors about any prior experience serving on juries and any previous familiarity with the case or the parties involved. Jurors also answered questions regarding any circumstances that might prevent the potential jurors from being impartial, such as being or knowing a sexual assault victim or someone who had been charged with assault.
Many of Lehman’s questions regarded the possible jurors’ relationships with their children, as well as their stance on whether a child would lie about or have false memories of an impactful event.
Reiser explained to the pool of jurors that because there was a delay between when the offense allegedly occurred and when the alleged victim reported it, no DNA evidence would be provided by the prosecution. Reiser asked potential jurors if they would be able to return a verdict without DNA evidence and based solely on the testimonies of the alleged victim and the witnesses.
Throughout the selection process, O’Brien excused a few seated jurors for cause. Several others were excused via a peremptory challenge, in which either party’s attorney can dismiss a possible juror without needing to provide a reason.
After Chen was placed on administrative leave in early 2021, Engineering Dean Alec Gallimore wrote in an email to CSE students that there was no indication of a connection between Chen’s career at the University and the criminal charge.
In a Jan. 2021 statement to The Michigan Daily, Lehman said Chen denied the claims made against him.
“On January 26, 2021 Mr. Chen was made aware of the criminal sexual conduct allegations that had been made against him,” Lehman wrote. “He completely denies the allegations and has cooperated fully with the Ann Arbor Police Department to assist them in their investigation. Mr. Chen is confident that the truth will prevail and that he will be exonerated fully. Mr. Chen thanks the numerous people who have reached out in support of him over the last few days.”
As is the case with all criminal jury trials in the state of Michigan, all 12 jurors must come to a unanimous verdict by the end of the trial.
The trial will resume at 8 a.m. on Nov. 29.
Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.