In most states, media outlets are prevented from reporting the names and some details in juvenile cases. This practice is born of the idea that juveniles can be rehabilitated and returned to society without the stigma of criminality. Overall this has been a successful policy, but sometimes it goes awry.
A recent case in Kentucky has illustrated some of the pitfalls of the practice, especially in the age of social media. ABC and many other outlets reported the story a few days ago. Savannah Dietrich, now 17, was sexually assaulted in August of 2011 by two acquaintances. She was at a party and had been drinking. She was unconscious when the attack took place. Additionally, the boys are reported to have taken photos of her, photos they then showed to classmates and others.
The two attackers have not been identified in the media, though their purported names and other details often appear in the comments sections wherever the story appears. Dietrich, the victim, would not normally be named, but she and her family have given their permission to be identified.
When the case went to court this year the two juveniles made a plea bargain with the district attorney. Both pleaded guilty to first degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism, and are to be sentenced next month. By all accounts neither Dietrich nor her family was notified of the plea agreement, and she was outraged at the deal. Additionally, the judge, Dee McDonald, issued a gag order protecting the rights of the boys to anonymity. Dietrich is quoted in the ABC story as saying, “They got off very easy…and they tell me to be quiet, just silencing me at the end.”
She was having none of it, so she tweeted the boy’s names and her feelings about what had happened. “They said I can’t talk about it or I’ll be locked up…Protect[ing] [the] rapist is more important than getting justice for the victim in Louisville.”
Attorneys for the two attackers filed a motion to have the girl found in contempt. She could have faced a $500 fine and six months in jail, probably more time than the boys will face.
The story spread quickly through blogs, news sites, social media and word of mouth. Public outcry was swift, condemning the lawyers, the attackers, and the judge, and praising Savannah Dietrich for her courage. Within a few days the motion had been dropped. One of the attorneys, David Meija, claimed that the public furor played no part in the decision. “The horse is out of the barn. Nothing is bringing it back,” he said, claiming that the only purpose of the motion was to enforce the law protecting the anonymity of the attackers.
It is hard to say whether or not Dietrich would have been found in contempt, or if a contempt finding would have been overturned later. She was not acting as a member of the media, and she had previously spoken about the details of her experience. The real upshot to this story has been twofold.
First, it has focused attention on the practice of maintaining secrecy in juvenile proceedings. Generally, I consider this to be a good thing, and the reasoning behind the practice is sound. The other facet of this case involves victims’ rights. What say should victims have in plea bargaining? What is the value of a deal that excludes the victim?
For me a solution would have involved Savannah from the very beginning. She would have been at the center of the process, and her needs would have been paramount. Next the needs of the attackers would have been taken into account, but not before hearing from the victim and her family about the damage they had done.
Perhaps if a process like this, a restorative process, had been used, she could have avoided the additional suffering she has been subjected to, the attackers could be dealt with, and the community would be safer.