One of two University of Montana football players accused of rape has pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors that would limit his sentence to 10 years in prison, settling a case that helped rivet attention on sexual assault among students there.
Beau Donaldson, 23, a running back for the Big Sky Conference champion team, the Grizzlies, was charged in January with raping a woman at his residence while she slept following a night of heavy drinking in September 2010.
The case was 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 into the handling of sexual assault allegations by the school and local law enforcement.
The U.S. Justice Department announced in May it would examine complaints that authorities failed to aggressively pursue sexual assault and harassment reports in Missoula, citing more than 80 reported rapes there during the past three years.
Weeks later, the U.S. Education Department opened its own investigation into whether the university responded properly to at least 11 reported rapes and sexual assaults at its Missoula campus since 2010. Three of those cases involved rape accusations against members of the football team.
Only two have been criminally prosecuted so far -- Donaldson and the former quarterback and team captain Jordan Johnson, 20, who was charged in July with raping a fellow student in her bedroom in February. He has pleaded not guilty.
Both have been suspended from the team.
Football coach Robin Pflugrad, who praised Johnson's "tremendous moral fiber" in a newspaper interview after the case came to light, was himself abruptly let go from the university in March, along with Athletic Director Jim O'Day.
The scandal stunned and angered many in Missoula, a western Montana city of 86,000 whose economy and identity are intertwined with the state's flagship research institution and its alter ego, the university affectionately known as the Griz Nation.
Donaldson pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a felony count of sexual intercourse without consent, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. But under the terms of the plea deal, Deputy Missoula County Attorney Shaun Donovan agreed to recommend that Donaldson serve 10 years in prison.
But defense lawyer Milton Datsopoulos said he will seek a lesser sentence for a client whom he described as presenting no danger to society or to the community.
A state judge is expected to decide Donaldson's punishment in a hearing planned for November.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Philip Barbara)