MINNEAPOLIS — A Chinese billionaire, one of the richest people in the world, is heading to trial in Minneapolis to defend himself against allegations that he raped a former University of Minnesota student after a night of dinner and drinks in 2018.
Richard Liu, the founder and former CEO of e-commerce giant JD.com, has denied raping the woman, and prosecutors did not file criminal charges. The woman, Jingyao Liu, sued in civil court, alleging she was coerced to drink before Richard Liu groped her in a limousine and raped her in her apartment.
Both are expected to testify, and it will be up to a jury to decide who is telling the truth. Jury selection starts Thursday, with opening statements Monday.
“I think our client’s credibility is one of the strongest parts of what the jury is going to hear,” said Wil Florin, an attorney for Jingyao Liu. “The incredible courage and fortitude that this young lady has shown is truly admirable.”
Diane Doolittle, an attorney for Richard Liu, said that the woman has changed her story and that the evidence will clear her client's name.
“We are looking forward to presenting the evidence, presenting the truth, so that the world will know that Mr. Liu is fully and completely innocent of these allegations against him,” she said.
The woman alleges the attack happened in 2018 while Richard Liu was in Minneapolis for a weeklong residency in the University of Minnesota’s doctor of business administration China program, geared toward high-level executives in China.
Jingyao Liu, a Chinese citizen, was at the university on a student visa and was a volunteer in the program at the time. The Associated Press does not generally name people alleging sexual assault, but Jingyao Liu has agreed to be identified publicly.
Richard Liu and Jingyao Liu are not related. Jingyao Liu was 21 at the time; Richard Liu was 46.
Richard Liu is a celebrity in China, part of a generation of entrepreneurs who created the country's internet, e-commerce, mobile phone and other technology industries since the late 1990s. Forbes estimated his wealth at $11.5 billion.
Richard Liu, who stepped down as CEO of JD.com this year amid increased government scrutiny of China’s technology industry, was arrested on suspicion of felony rape, but prosecutors never filed criminal charges, saying the case had “profound evidentiary problems.”
Jingyao Liu sued Richard Liu and JD.com in 2019, alleging sexual assault and battery, along with false imprisonment.
The case drew widespread attention at a time when the #MeToo movement was gaining traction in China. Richard Liu's supporters and opponents waged aggressive public relations campaigns on Chinese social media; censors shut down some accounts that supported Jingyao Liu for “violating regulations.”
Jingyao Liu says in her lawsuit that she had to withdraw from classes in fall 2018 and seek counseling and treatment. Her attorney says she has since graduated but has post-traumatic stress disorder. She seeks compensatory damages to cover medical bills, emotional distress and pain and suffering, and Judge Edward Wahl ruled she could also seek punitive damages from Richard Liu.
She is seeking more than $50,000, a standard figure that must be listed in Minnesota if a plaintiff intends to seek anything above that amount. She is expected to ask a jury to award much more.
According to the lawsuit, on the night of the alleged attack, Richard Liu and other executives went to a Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis, and one of the men invited Jingyao Liu at Richard Liu’s request. Jingyao Liu felt coerced to drink as the powerful men toasted her, and Richard Liu said she would dishonor him if she did not join in, she said in her lawsuit.
According to text messages reviewed by The Associated Press and Jingyao Liu’s interviews with police, she said that after the dinner, Richard Liu pulled her into a limousine and groped her despite her protests. She said he raped her at her apartment. She texted a friend: “I begged him don’t. But he didn’t listen.”
After police went to her apartment, Jingyao Liu told one officer, “I was raped but not that kind of rape,” according to police. When asked to explain, she changed the subject and said Richard Liu was famous and she was afraid. She told the officer that the sex was “spontaneous” and that she did not want police to get involved.
Officers released Richard Liu because “it was unclear if a crime had actually taken place,” according to police. In an interview later with an investigator, Richard Liu said that the sex was consensual and that the woman “enjoyed the whole process very much.”
According to police, Jingyao Liu told a sergeant she wanted to talk with Richard Liu’s attorney and threatened to go to the media if she did not. Richard Liu’s former attorney recorded the phone call, in which Jingyao Liu said that she didn’t want the case to be in the newspaper and that “I just need payment money and apologize and that’s all.”
That phone call will be allowed as evidence in the trial. The jurors will also be told that they may presume any electronic messages deleted by Jingyao Liu contained information unfavorable to her. Both pretrial rulings were considered wins for the defense.
Surveillance videos from the restaurant, its exterior and the halls of the woman’s apartment complex will be shown at trial. Richard Liu’s attorneys have said the video shows that Jingyao Liu does not appear to be intoxicated or in distress, as she initially claimed, and that she changed her story after the video surfaced.
She says in her lawsuit that she went to her apartment building with Richard Liu to be polite, and that she believed he was simply walking her to the door. Florin, Jingyao Liu’s attorney, intends to play body camera video from police that he says shows his client feared Richard Liu because he is powerful.
“Insanely wealthy men, they always have the card that they play: ‘Well, I’m being accused of this because I’m wealthy,’” Florin said.
“What happened that night was an evening of consensual sex," Doolittle, one of Richard Liu's attorneys, said. “Mr. Liu regrets that, and he regrets being unfaithful to his wife.”
The burden of proof is lower than in a criminal trial, and jurors need only find a preponderance of evidence in either side’s favor, said Chris Madel, a Minneapolis attorney who isn’t involved in the case.
If jurors proceed to considering punitive damages, that portion of the case requires a different standard of proof. To award punitive damages, jurors must find “clear and convincing evidence” that Richard Liu “deliberately disregarded the rights or safety of others,” Madel said.
After cases like this, Madel said, no matter how much evidence is presented, jurors will typically say: “We just listened to him, we listened to her, and we made our minds up.”