A 17-year-old Kentucky girl who was upset by the plea deal reached by a pair of teenagers who sexually assaulted her is now facing a contempt charge for tweeting their names in violation of a court order.
As regular readers may be aware, i am something of a stickler for legal process, leading me, at times, to take positions that a seriously unpopular on major cases – particular those involving (sexual) violence. Becaused much of the time, i believe the law gets things more or less right – and i’m not too keen on those of us distant from the process re-hashing cases with a fraction of the information available in court.
But not here. Not this time. Because when it comes to this all-too-common sort of juvenile nastiness, the rights of the victim seem increasingly to take second place to those of the perpetrator.
A serious assault on a person
Let’s start with the offence. First-degree sexual abuse is serious stuff. It occurs when an individual
subjects another person to sexual contact by forcible compulsion
subjects another person to sexual contact who is incapable of consent
Its akin to the UK’s “indecent assault” and a step down from rape. But still, it can be bargained with, as this US instance makes all too clear. The perpetrators plead guilty to the charge – so there’s no issue of prejudice here: no jury still to be swayed. The only outstanding issue is what sort of sentence they receive – and whether their identities will be made public.
The latter is particularly germane in respect of what they did to their victim. For not only did they assault her: they took pictures of her during and after which they distributed to friends, contributing massively to her distress. As she told her local paper: ‘For months, I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t go out in public places,’
And an assault on the court’s dignity!
But what’s this? We have the judge instructing those present at the trial not to talk about what went on – including the identity of the perpetrators. And now lawyers for the two perpetrators are asking that the court take action against victim Savannah Dietrich since she revealed their identity on twitter adding: ‘There you go, lock me up. I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.’
The symmetry – the sick irony – of this story cannot be avoided. On the one hand, it was
the publicity and public humiliation that contributed, as so often, to a reliving of her original violation and a massive twisting of the knife long after the assault. On the other, such exposure just shouldn’t be allowed for the individuals who carried out the assault.
Presumably, they must now be allowed to get on with their lives: accept the minor slap on the wrist that their punishment may well be. And the victim is silenced.
What about t’menz
Still, i here the WATM (what about t’menz) contingent sharpening their axes. I mean, where’s the consistency here? Shield laws perform a function that is mostly benign, protecting victims from further damage and on occasion allowing the law to impose a penalty with surgical precision, ensuring that punishment is restricted to what the courts dish out and not to vigilante rule.
To which my answer is simple. A single word: bollocks!
Yes. Sometimes US shield laws go too far: sometimes not far enough.
But this case goes much deeper. In imposing a shield on the pertpetrators’ identities, the court is utterly failing to take account either of the seriousness of the crime or the effect of its own actions on the victim.
The lawyers now making weasel noises about prosecuting the woman at the centre of this merely add to the climate of abuse. In general, the penalties for sexual violence are low – far too low – for an offense that can haunt those on the receiving end for the rest of their lives.
A part of the healing process lies in taking back control of life, of self, of expression. For the state, therefore, to insist on silencing a victim – essentially adding to their grief – is grotesque.
As for the perpetrators, the very least that they and every other such individual should expect, as standard, is for their names to be made very, very public.
Yes: in the end, Ms Dietrich may have committed a technical breach of the law. She may – shock! horror! – have breached the confidentiality of the court. Something that may cause the odd judge apoplexy – but is not, per se, an attack on the corut proceedings.
And so? Even if she has, perhaps it is time the court – and its lawyers – got over itself. “Sucked it up”, as they say in the US: acknowledge that she may have committed an offence; and then just let her get on with the rest of her life.