Audrie Pott Is Another Tragic Loss

16 Apr

Sheila PottIt’s three now (as far as I know – I’m not a social media freak) if anyone is counting. Audrie Potts is the third young woman to commit suicide (in addition to the Steubenville trial) after a sexual assault live images of which then posted online.

Eight days after allegedly being sexually battered while passed out at a party, and then humiliated by online photos of the assault, 15-year-old Audrie Pott posted on Facebook that her life was ruined after the “worst day ever,” and hanged herself.

For the next eight months, her family struggled to figure out what happened to their soccer-loving, artistic, horse-crazy daughter, whose gentle smile, long dark hair and shining eyes did not belie a struggling soul.

And then on Thursday, seven months after the tragedy, a Northern California sheriff’s office arrested three 16-year-old boys on charges of sexual battery.

“The family has been trying to understand why their loving daughter would have taken her life at such a young age and to make sure that those responsible would be held accountable,” said family attorney Robert Allard.

“After an extensive investigation that we have conducted on behalf of the family, there is no doubt in our minds that the victim, then only 15 years old, was savagely assaulted by her fellow high school students while she lay on a bed completely unconscious.”

Allard said students used cell phones to share photos of the attack, and that the images went viral.

Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Lt. Jose Cardoza said they arrested two of the teens at Saratoga High School and the third, a former Saratoga High student, at Christopher High School in Gilroy on Thursday. The names of the suspects were not released because they are minors.

Cardoza said the suspects were booked into juvenile hall and face two felonies and one misdemeanor each, all related to sexual battery that allegedly occurred at a Saratoga house party.

Set aside, for the moment, the alleged assaults. There is a long-standing problem of proof when allegations of rape are made, especially among people who know each other and when drinking or drugs are involved – though the convictions in Steubenville, Ohio, show it can be done. Maybe the Steubenville result, in which a judge found the boys guilty for a sexual assault that the victim could not really remember, will wind up being the just ending to Audrie and Rehtaeh’s cases, too.

But there is also the circulation of the compromising photos, which created a trail of digital evidence. In light of that, we should have a clear way to bring charges against the instigators – a way that recognises that the boys involved were teenagers, not adults.

Whoever is responsible for circulating the photos of Rehtaeh could be charged under Canada’s child pornography laws. A conviction would come with a mandatory minimum sentence, Canadian Attorney General Rob Nicholson emphasised in a statement about Rehtaeh’s case on Thursday.

In a situation like this, where outrage is understandably everywhere, it’s hard to think about tempering justice with mercy. Believe me, I know that. And for these boys, child pornography charges may well be warranted. But most of the time, charging teenagers as child pornographers shouldn’t be the only option. We should have laws that offer a middle ground between no charges at all and heavy prison sentences with a lifetime on the sex-offender register. We should have laws that specifically and deliberately address teen sexting.

The key is to distinguish between one kid consensually sending one other kid a sexual photo and one kid sending out a photo that the pictured teenager has not consented to at all. It’s not that the first kind of sexting is a good idea – it’s that kids shouldn’t get caught up in the criminal justice system for it, whereas nonconsensual sexting is a different story. “We should draw the line between my daughter stupidly sending a photo of herself to her boyfriend and her boyfriend sending it to all his friends to humiliate her,” Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Centre told me. “The first is stupid. The second is more troubling and should be criminal.”

This is in no way a license to exonerate these creeps, but to apply justice in the right proportion.

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