After a two-week trial and a short two-hour deliberation, a jury on Friday acquitted former Benton County Attorney Philip Miller of two counts of criminal sexual conduct.
Miller retired at the end of his term in 2022 after nearly a decade as the top prosecutor in the central Minnesota county.
"It was a quick verdict and in my head, based on my 34 and a half years working in courts, I figured a quick verdict was a good thing," Miller said Monday. "But being on the other side of things is a surreal experience."
Miller, 63, was charged in 2021 with felony counts for allegedly assaulting a then-15-year-old girl in March 2020 and again a couple of months later. According to the complaint, which was handled by Dakota County, the girl told investigators Miller came into her bedroom and assaulted her more than once while she was asleep or pretending to be asleep.
After being charged, Miller denied the accusations, saying through his attorney the situation was "unreal" and "shocking."
"This was a kick in the gut from the outset," he said, adding that the allegations and lengthy court process took a toll on him and his adult children.
"My family, my kids also suffered and my reputation was shot," he said. "I determined I was still going to go to work. I was still going to do my job the way I always had. ... It's weird walking into the Benton County Courthouse knowing everybody there knows what's going on with the charges. But I got a lot of support from people there as well."
Miller said he harbors no ill will towards the girl but can't say the same thing about the prosecution.
Miller's attorney, Christa Groshek, presented two experts in Miller's defense: a memory expert and a forensic interviewing expert.
"These guys were super helpful in a case where we've got allegations from a young person," she said Monday. "When somebody reports something, the next step needs to be taken: a thorough forensic interview where you're asking about details and circumstances or following up on things the child has said. That unfortunately didn't happen here."
Groshek said the investigation started after family members found an "offhand remark" about Miller in a message on the girl's social media account.
"Her friend shared a secret and [the girl] made a glib comment about Mr. Miller. That gets re-reported to a boy that she likes," Groshek said. "And then her private messages were discovered by her sister who was monitoring her social media use because she had a history of talking to this boy she's not supposed to. And then it all blew up, and so we found ourselves in the middle of a teenage drama."
Groshek said the girl and her mother told investigators she often got in trouble for lying, but no one followed up on that.
"I understand, and certainly Mr. Miller understands, the importance of investigating allegations of child sexual abuse. Nobody wants children to be abused. But I also think that we have to follow protocol," she said. "We have to ask the hard questions. We have to look at allegations and see if they make sense before we're off to the races with months and months — years — of a person's reputation being tarnished by allegations that ultimately proved to not be true."
The lead prosecuting attorney, Paige Starkey, declined to comment on the case. In an email statement, Dakota County Attorney Kathy Keena thanked Starkey for her work on the case and for being a voice for the victim.
"While I am disappointed with the verdict, I fully respect it," Keena said.
Miller was appointed Benton County attorney in 2013. He was elected to the position in 2014, re-elected in 2018. He retired at the end of his last term following the advice of a cardiologist who said he needed to reduce stress after quadruple bypass surgery.
Before serving in Benton County, Miller was county attorney in Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties. Because he held office in Benton County, the trial was held in Mille Lacs County. Miller said Monday he is grateful for the jury, which he said "helped restore my faith in the criminal justice system."
In June, Miller was charged with two misdemeanor counts of DWI. On Monday, he said he intends to plead guilty as part of a plea agreement in the coming weeks.
"When I do something wrong, I admit it," he said of the charges. "I'll be blunt. I screwed up."
Miller said he's now living up north and is spending time remodeling a house. He said the acquittal was a relief for him, his children and his friends.
"Now I feel like I can look people straight in the face and not feel ashamed because of this crap hanging over me," he said.