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University of Montana athlete reinstated after rape acquittal

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson has been reinstated to the school's football team just days after a jury acquitted him of a rape charge in a case that drew national attention, Johnson's attorney said on Tuesday.

Johnson, 20, former captain of a team that has dominated college football's Big Sky Conference, was accused in July of raping another student while they watched a movie in her bedroom the previous February.

The mathematics major was subsequently suspended from the team, the Grizzlies, pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. His three-week trial ended on Friday with a state court jury in Missoula finding Johnson not guilty of rape.

The case stemmed from one of a spate of student-related rape reports that surfaced at the university in recent years, leading the federal government to launch a probe last spring into the handling of sexual assault allegations by the school and local law enforcement.

Another former member of the Grizzlies football squad, running back Beau Donaldson, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year after pleading guilty to raping a woman at his residence in 2010.

On Monday, Johnson successfully appealed his suspension before a university panel, and the reinstatement has been approved by university President Royce Engstrom, said Johnson's Missoula-based attorney, David Paoli. The university confirmed the reinstatement.

Johnson is eager to rejoin his teammates, who have already given him "a warm welcome back," Paoli said. He added, "Returning to the Grizzlies is very important to Jordan, and we are very pleased he is back with his team."

Paoli said Johnson, who continued his math studies during the suspension, can now resume such activities as reading to elementary school students in Missoula and assisting with a community football program for young players.

"His life has been put on hold for over a year pending the defeat of the baseless charge. Now the jury has clearly and unmistakably spoken, and Jordan can continue to fully give back to his community and his school," Paoli said.

The U.S. Justice Department last May opened an inquiry into the handling of rape reports by the university, police and the local prosecutor's office based on allegations by unidentified sources that sexual assault and harassment claims were not being aggressively pursued in Missoula. The school and local authorities have denied those claims.

Weeks later, the U.S. Education Department opened a parallel investigation into whether the university responded appropriately to at least 11 reported sexual assaults since 2010. Three of those cases involved rape accusations against football players, including Johnson and Donaldson.

Questions about the handling of rape reports and investigations by the U.S. government have rocked Missoula, a city of 86,000 whose identity and economy are closely tied to the university, the state's flagship research institution and its powerhouse football team.

Johnson will vie with three other quarterbacks in upcoming spring drills to regain his starting position.

As a sophomore in 2011, Johnson was an honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference selection and set a Montana single-game record with six touchdown passes in a 45-10 victory over Utah's Weber State.

(Editing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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