UPDATE: Watch the video above and decide for yourself.
Detroit Free Press
Mateen Cleaves has long attracted attention for his play on a basketball court.
His appearance in criminal court for trial on rape charges proved no different.
As Cleaves walked into Genesee County Circuit Court on Tuesday morning, a group of six supporters waited on the courthouse steps to hug him and say they were praying for him. Mobile trucks from the local television stations were parked at the curb.
Inside, every seat the courtroom was full, as was an overflow room with closed-circuit cameras on the proceedings.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was there, sitting in the front row, a few steps away from Cleaves, whom he said he considers “part of the family.” So were Cleaves’ relatives and friends. One man wore a Flint Northern T-shirt, representing the high school where Cleaves became an icon.
It was definitely a hometown crowd, though there was no cheering. Instead, just somber gazes and whispered words.
“I think all of Flint is praying for him,” said Flint City Councilman Eric Mays, who sat through the six-day trial.
Some women’s rights activists were far less sympathetic.
Rachael Denhollander, the first victim of former MSU doctor Larry Nassarto come forward and accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, saw a news report that Izzo was in attendance. She noted in a tweet that “Some MSU officials CAN make it to court in sex abuse cases. Not on behalf of victims, though.”
Mays has known Cleaves’ family for years. He said that Cleaves has become, unfairly in Mays’ view, the poster child of the sexual assault crisis at Michigan State.
The crisis has uncovered hundreds of victims of abuse at the hands of Nassar and prompted millions in settlements. It led to the downfall of former MSU President Lou Anna Simon and raised doubts about the school’s commitment to protecting women from attack, especially when the accused attackers are prominent athletes.
The courtroom drama played out in downtown Flint, about 2 miles from Grace Street on the city’s north side, where Cleaves grew up.
Cleaves has the word Flint tattooed on his right arm and the city has basketball tattooed on its DNA, ranking second only to Detroit when it comes to producing state championship high school teams.
Cleaves’ Flint Northern team won the state championship in 1995, his junior year. He scored 22 points in the championship victory over Kalamazoo.
The following year, Northern failed to repeat, but Cleaves averaged more than 28 points per game and finished second to Winfred Walton of Detroit Pershing that year in the Free Press’ Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award.
Cleaves was recruited as both a quarterback and a point guard in 1996, but chose Michigan State basketball, telling the Free Press “that’s where my heart is.”
His commitment was a big recruiting win for Izzo, who had gone 16-16 in his first year as MSU’s head coach. The two would become so close over the following years that Izzo would choose Mateen as a middle name for his son, Steven.
Izzo also named a players lounge beside the Spartan locker room at the Breslin Center after Cleaves’ mother, Frances.
Cleaves was one of the so-called Flintstones, prominent high school players from Flint, including Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, who helped push Michigan State to the elite in college basketball.
Cleaves led Michigan State to a 1999 Final Four appearance and the 2000 NCAA championship, earning a place in the hearts of Spartan basketball fans second only to Magic Johnson. The Detroit Pistons later chose him in the first round of the NBA draft, though he was never able to replicate his college success in the pros.
Though Cleaves was less naturally gifted than some of his college teammates, his career was noted for his toughness, fighting through injuries and leading other players to victory.
But it wasn’t without controversy.
Even before he got to Michigan State, Cleaves was a highly sought recruit. In February 1996, as his high school career was winding down, he escaped serious injury when a Ford Explorer in which he was riding rolled over at 5:30 a.m.
The vehicle was driven by Maurice Taylor, a sophomore forward at the University of Michigan, which was recruiting Cleaves. Cleaves was on a recruiting visit with U-M players Louis Bullock, Willie Mitchell, Ron Oliver and Robert Traylor. They’d visited Michigan booster Ed Martin, who was later banned for NCAA violations, before heading to a party.
A month later, Cleaves committed to MSU. When he began play that fall, Cleaves missed time on the court with a cracked vertebra, which some attributed to the crash.
By 1998, Cleaves’ career was flourishing as he was named Big Ten player of the year. But minor controversies continued to follow him. In February of that year, Cleaves and teammate Andre Hutson were arrested at 4:45 a.m. after a victory over Michigan.
Cleaves, then 20, was ticketed for being a minor in possession of alcohol, refusing a breath test and not wearing a seat belt. The charges were later reduced to a civil infraction. He paid a $150 fine.
Izzo was, at times, accused of being soft on Cleaves. He acknowledged that could be true but said despite their different upbringings — Izzo in the Upper Peninsula town of Iron Mountain and Cleaves on the streets of one of America’s most violent cities — the two had much in common.
“I respect where he came from, and he respects where I came from,” Izzo told the Associated Press in November 1998. “I went from this small town and have found a way to buck the odds and make it here. He’s come from this tough environment, where a lot of kids don’t make it and don’t survive, and he’s finding a way to make it. So, I think there’s some similarities there. We’re both kind of fighters.”
The following winter, Cleaves had another brush with the law. He was in a car with teammate Antonio Smith, who was arrested for outstanding traffic tickets. Cleaves wasn’t ticketed, but an underage girl in the car was cited for minor in possession of alcohol.
In June 1999, Cleaves was with Smith again when they were arrested for shoplifting a 40-ounce beer from a convenience store. The charges were dropped a few months later when a witness failed to show up in court.
Cleaves continued his partying ways. He was cited twice that summer by campus police for noise violations related to a loud party at his apartment.
Cleaves’ legal troubles in college are minor compared with the rape case in Flint.
In September 2015, Cleaves appeared as a celebrity guest at a charity golf outing at Warwick Hills Golf and Country in Grand Blanc Township, a private club that for years hosted the PGA Tour’s Buick Open.
The event was raising money for a nonprofit group in Flint that helps children who have experienced trauma.
One of the people working it was a 23-year-old woman from Mount Morris Township outside of Flint. She posed for a picture with Cleaves, got his cellphone number and, when the outing was over, texted him an invitation to join her and others at the Sweetwater Bar and Grill to continue partying.
Cleaves showed up at the bar, bought a round of shots and continued drinking with the group until after midnight.
The woman’s boyfriend was there, but she left with Cleaves in his vehicle. Instead of taking her home or back to Warwick Hills to pick up her car, he drove her to the nearby Knights Inn Motel.
The single-story complex sits beside a freeway on-ramp and advertises rooms for around $40 a night. Cleaves got a key for Room 121 sometime after 1 a.m. and the two walked inside.
Security camera video
What happened next became the crux of the case against Cleaves.
The woman said she remembers kissing Cleaves in the motel room, but then didn’t remember anything until she was on the bed with Cleaves on top of her. She said she told him that he was married and she had a boyfriend, that this can’t happen and that she wanted to go home.
She said she tried to leave.
Jurors saw security camera video from the motel showing the woman walking away from the motel room wearing only a bra. Cleaves was seen running after her, naked, grabbing her hands and pulling her back into the room. As Cleaves pulls on her hands, she is seen bent at the waist with her legs resisting the pull.
A second video taken minutes later, showed the woman leaving again. This time she’s wearing a bra and underwear. Cleaves again pulls her back in. Eventually, a woman in a nearby room calls 911 to report the incident.
Officers from Mundy Township, where the motel is located, respond to the complaint and learned from dispatchers as they drove there that a vehicle at the scene was registered to Mateen Ahmad Cleaves.
Sgt. Todd Johnson testified that when he arrived at 2:07 a.m., Cleaves was driving his Cadillac Escalade toward the exit to the motel parking lot.
He stopped him, talked briefly with him and then headed down to Room 125, a few doors down from Cleaves’ room. There he found the woman who placed the 911 call and Cleaves’ accuser, who was sitting on the bed. Johnson testified that the woman appeared intoxicated and upset.
Johnson noticed one of her knees was skinned, but said the woman “said she wasn’t assaulted.”
Johnson basically dropped the matter there. He returned to the front of the motel to talk to Cleaves and another officer, Brian Ogle.
Cleaves smelled of alcohol, but he refused a breath test.
Johnson acknowledged he could have cited Cleaves for refusing the breath test, but instead agreed to drive Cleaves home. To avoid having his squad car seen at Cleaves’ home, Johnson said he agreed to Cleaves’ request to drop him at the opening to his subdivision so he could walk home from there.
Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lisa Lindsey grilled Johnson on the stand, noting that he spent about 6 minutes with Cleaves’ accuser, never took statements from witnesses, including the woman who placed the 911 call, and never checked with motel management for security camera footage.
The following day, the woman visited a hospital to report the rape, and the investigation began.
Both Johnson and Ogle acknowledged that they were disciplined for their handling of the incident, but both defended their actions.
Ogle went even further, filing a whistleblower lawsuit against his own department, claiming his bosses wanted him to go hard on Cleaves.
Ogle claims in the suit that he was targeted by his department because “he would not acquiesce to … pressure to portray Mr. Cleaves as guilty of sexual assault.”
The lawsuit was stayed while the criminal case was pending.
That wasn’t the only controversy involved in the prosecution of the case. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton recused himself from the case from the beginning, citing a connection to a key witness in the case.
Wayne County prosecutors handled the case and used investigative subpoenas to force reluctant witnesses to testify. But the case faltered from the start.
In December 2016, District Judge M. Cathy Dowd dismissed the case, saying there was not enough evidence to take it to trial. Prosecutors appealed that dismissal and got the case reinstated to force the trial that concluded this week.
Hometown legal team
Cleaves fought the case with a team of four lawyers. The leader, Frank Manley, is pugnacious 38-year veteran of the criminal courts in his hometown of Flint. In the town that also birthed General Motors, Manley drives a black Cadillac Escalade with the vanity plate THSHARK. He parks in a reserved spot just steps from the courthouse door.
Manley’s crew-cut hairline is receding, but his combativeness isn’t.
“Regret is not rape” Manley told jurors in opening arguments. His brother, Michael Manley, who also worked on the case, echoed that line in closing arguments.
When Cleaves first learned he’d be charged, he immediately turned to the Manleys to represent him.
The two families have been close for more than 50 years. Cleaves’ father, Herbert, and Manley’s father, Frank, were close friends and activists in Flint beginning in the 1960s.
“They know me, they know my character, they know how I was raised,” Cleaves told the Free Press on Wednesday. “I know they care just as much about my life as I do.”
Cleaves’ father coached Michael Manley’s football team when he was child, and the two fathers were friends “until the day they died,” Frank Manley said, adding he knew Cleaves’ grandmother as well as Cleaves’ children.
“It’s really four generations that the Cleaves family and the Manley family have known each other,” he said.
Some defense attorneys are reluctant to appear too aggressive in questioning a woman who is claiming rape for fear of alienating jurors. Frank Manley said they chose to do it because they wanted to push back against the prosecution narrative that Cleaves was a rapist.
“Fear has no place in a courtroom,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in a situation where there were any accusations that were unchallenged.”
The case was followed closely in Flint.
‘Trial of the century’
“Trial of the century in Flint,” said Glen Lenhoff, a local lawyer who had no connection to the case, other than enough curiosity to sit through several days of testimony. “This is a big deal here.”
A posse of people filled the courtroom each day of the trial. Tall guys in track suits and sneakers, an older man who read a dog-eared Bible during breaks, an elderly woman pushing a walker and another man with a cane. Cleaves’ wife was there throughout as well.
Other judges from the court and local lawyers attended, and Sheriff William Pickell popped in at times to take in the scene.
Izzo came for closing arguments and later sat in a courthouse lounge with Cleaves and the defense lawyers as jurors were deliberating.
In closing arguments, neither side held back.
Lindsey argued police conducted a biased investigation. She said Cleaves’ lawyers demanded accountability from the woman but never from their own client and Cleaves himself lied to investigators and ultimately, forced himself on a vulnerable woman.
“She wanted to meet him. She wanted to have a picture with him. So what?” Lindsey argued. “She’s not obligated to have sex with him. Everything he uses to prove consent shows his state of mind. He thinks because she did those things, it gave him the right to have sex with her. It didn’t.”
Michael Manley delivered the closing argument for the defense, accusing the woman of being “an obnoxious, belligerent, remorseful drunk.”
“I want the ladies on the jury to put your wife or mother radar on,” Manley said, noting Cleaves’ accuser had gaps of time she couldn’t remember from that evening.
“Could it be that she’s pursuing a professional athlete at this particular time?” Manley asked jurors. “Maybe she is attracted to him at this point.”
In the end, the jury took a little over two hours before acquitting Cleaves on all counts, prompting him to leap into the arms of Frank Manley and sob loudly in court.
The gallery hooted its approval as well, before Judge Celeste Bell quieted them.
The biggest victory of his life came from a team on which he didn’t play. Cleaves exercised his right to not testify in his own defense. His lawyers won the case.
Frank Manley called it the most satisfying win of his career.
Michael Manley said the system worked.
“She got her day in court,” Michael Manley said. “Twelve citizens immediately said not guilty. This case can be put to rest and Mateen Cleaves has his reputation back.”
Outside the courthouse, Cleaves placed his arms around the Manley brothers, called them lifesavers and thanked Danielle McCluskey, another member of his legal team.
He thanked Izzo for coming to court.
“He hasn’t left my side since I was 18 years old and I decided to come to Michigan State,” Cleaves said. “It shows the support I have from people. They’re not going to support no rapist. The Cleaves name means something in this town. Not just in sports. My mother and father fought for people. I was raised the right way.”
Cleaves said he has lived under a cloud for the past four years. He’d see people in the grocery store who’d give him weird looks. Other people would come up and hug him and tell him that they were praying for him.
He publicly apologized to his wife.
“My wife has been by my side since Day 1,” he said. “I want to publicly apologize to her. She didn’t deserve this. She is a great wife and great mother to my children.”
Cleaves said he did feel vindicated by the jury and he hopes for redemption in his hometown.
“I hope the community can forgive me for stepping out on my wife,” Cleaves said. “That’s not how I was raised. Hopefully, they can forgive me for that.”
Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or [email protected] On Twitter @jwisely
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