LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A Kentucky teenager frustrated by light punishment for two boys who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her was spared Monday from having to face a contempt charge for naming them on Twitter in violation of a court order.
The case of Savannah Dietrich, 17, quickly gathered supporters nationwide who were upset that the victim of an assault could be punished for speaking out against her attackers.
The girl turned to Twitter after she said she was frustrated with what she felt was a lenient plea deal. The judge had ordered no one to speak about the case, which was in juvenile court.
On Monday, attorneys for the boys dropped their motion to charge her with contempt. David Mejia, an attorney for one of the boys, said the decision to withdraw the motion had nothing to do with public sentiment and online attention to the case.
He said the purpose of the motion had been to enforce the law that protects juveniles and their actions from disclosure.
“The horse is out of the barn,” he said. “Nothing is bringing it back.”
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Dietrich and her parents wanted her story to be made public. She gave her account to The Courier-Journal newspaper in a story published Saturday. She has not responded to the AP for comment and her lawyer, Emily Farrar-Crockett of the public defender’s juvenile division, did not immediately return telephone calls.
Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said victims who feel cheated by the justice system sometimes file civil lawsuits in an effort to get information made public, but social media has turned that on its head.
“It’s all about giving victims a voice,” Dion said.
In one day, an online petition on Change.org had garnered 62,000 signatures in support of Dietrich’s action.
“When I read it, I was appalled and outraged and thought, ‘Somebody has to do something about this. Who is going to do something about this?'” said Elizabeth Beier, 22, of Cockeysville, Maryland, who started the petition even though she doesn’t know Deitrich. “Everyone wants this girl to have peace and time to recover and not another trauma like jail time.”
Beier said the two women have not spoken, but she congratulated her.
“I think what she did was very brave by coming forward … and I think a lot of people who may have been victims or survivors of assault and didn’t get the justice they deserve probably see themselves in her,” she said.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said the motion to withdraw the contempt of court charge was “a huge victory not only for Ms. Dietrich, but for women all over the country.” The contempt charge carries a possible sentence of 180 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Dietrich told The Courier-Journal that she was assaulted in August 2011 by two boys she knew when she passed out after drinking at a gathering. She learned months later that pictures of the assault were taken and shared with others on the Internet.
“These boys shared the picture of her being raped with their friends and she can’t share their names with her Twitter community? That’s just crazy,” O’Neill said.
The Courier-Journal reported that the boys were charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony, and misdemeanour voyeurism, according to information in a court motion the newspaper filed asking Judge Dee McDonald to allow the paper to see motions filed by attorneys for Dietrich.
The teens pleaded guilty to those charges in late June, though 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.
Dietrich could not say what the proposed punishment was because of the court order, but said she feels like it was a slap on the wrist.
The teens are to be sentenced next month, and the judge could reject or modify the terms of the proposed agreement.
Dion said the Kentucky law on gag orders in juvenile cases presupposes that information revealed came from reading the court record. In Dietrich’s case, he noted, she was the victim, and she had independent knowledge of the crime.
“And I think a restriction or gag order on a victim creates some First Amendment issues,” Dion said, referring to the amendment of the U.S. Constitution granting free speech rights.
He added that prosecuting a victim “sends a terrible message.”
“We created victims’ rights out of a recognition that we need victims to come forward in order for our justice system to work,” he said. “Really, what do they get for that?”
Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the boys, said publicizing their names may create problems for them in the future.
“There’s always that possibility and in any type of scenario like this you run that risk,” he said. “Now whether both these boys can overcome those hurdles, it’s too early to determine that.”
Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney’s office, said he could not comment because of the confidentiality on juvenile cases.