In August 2011 Savannah Dietrich, now 17, of Kentucky was sexually assaulted by two juvenile boys who then posted photos of their attack online; when they entered a plea bargain to receive what Savannah felt (and I’m sure she’s right) to be a lenient deal, Savannah twittered her disgust and named these thugs in her post. She then found herself facing a contempt of court charge with penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $500.
What part don’t you get?
You didn’t know that in many US states juvenile court proceedings are not only closed to the public but even the victim is warned not to speak of what happens in these proceedings — or else face criminal charges?
It’s not the kind of thing you would know, usually, and it defies common sense. That is why I am grateful to Savannah for having the guts to do it anyway — to make public the names of her attackers — at least briefly.
Yes, the boys’ defense attorney who entered the motion for the contempt charge against Savannah has now withdrawn it (62,000 people in one day signed a petition on change.org to get the charges dropped). This does not mean, however, that the District Attorney can’t proceed with the charges (nothing would surprise me).
The media at large is still not naming the assailants, and Savannah’s legal position is too tenuous, I imagine, for her to re-post. But she has brought a legal absurdity to the attention of some, at least.
Here’s the thing: court orders and court proceedings involving juvenile defendants are closed to the public and cannot be broadcast or published or released in any form unless specifically provisioned. The idea, I guess, is that juveniles don’t have the decision-making capacity of adults and so their mistakes should not follow them through life. Certainly I could go along with this in the case of a 10-year-old who stole a pack of gum.
But not for those who commit violent assaults. Not for teens who beat their girlfriends senseless or assault them sexually and post their doings on the net.
It’s bad enough that when they are adults, they can have the records of their actions expunged. It can all be for them as if it never happened. But that they can be shielded from the righteous anger of their victims, and that the system is set up so that the community cannot be warned that these foul pukes have committed such crimes — that is intolerable.
Now imagine if your daughter were invited to a party where these guys would be and became their next victim. You would never know that, were it not for the law itself, she could have been warned that these kids were predators (why not use social media to alert the public of danger?). But as it stands, the justice system itself forbids this.
When these thugs’ probation is over and later when their records are expunged, they can pretend nothing ever happened. It’s all over.
For their victims, it isn’t over so easily or so quickly — if it is ever over for them at all.
Then there is the irony that it is only by seeking justice within the system that Savannah found herself facing criminal charges. If the matter hadn’t gone before a judge, she could have Twittered whatever she wanted about the scum. True, they could have sued her, but their identities wouldn’t be protected in civil proceedings, at least.
There is also a queerness to the law. Savannah’s knowledge of events is not derived from court records, but from personal experience. Is the intent of the confidentiality provisions to keep officers of the court from judges to clerks from gossiping in small communities or is it to shut up the victim?
Savannah’s life, her story, is just that — her story: no judge should have the right to limit her freedom to tell her story.
She has no status whatsoever, legally. She is not a party to the court proceedings. As a juvenile herself, her parent would have had to file the petition/press charges against the boys.
In a plea bargain, there is no trial. She was not even then a witness. She never had the chance to tell her story to the judge. She never had the chance to force her assailants and their parents to listen to what their spawn had done to her.
(Note: “Dietrich and her family told the newspaper they were unaware of the plea bargain and recommended sentence until just before it was announced in court.” If they can prove this, it shows that the District Attorney’s office is staffed by incompetents or couldn’t be bothered to prepare for trial. I’d like to know who was subpoenaed — if anyone. But I never will. Since juvenile proceedings are shrouded in secrecy, who knows if the DA generally is lenient toward juveniles who commit sexual or physical assaults — if that is, they are wealthy enough to have attorneys in the good ole boy network? I’d Romney-bet you $10,000 the thugs weren’t minorities.)
From doing the right thing, going through all the proper legal channels, Savannah ended up with nothing but more suffering.
And she can’t even tell us about it.
This must change.