Too Young for Sex, But Old Enough for the Sex Offender Registry, Part II

By Michele Goodwin

This post is the second in a three part series on the use of criminal law to police teen sex.  The first part can be viewed here.

In recent years, thousands of judicial proceedings against children result in teens as young as thirteen being adjudicated as sexual predators and placed on sex offender registries.  The problem in the United States is that statutory rape laws create per se rule violations with respect to all sexual intercourse involving children.  My research reveals that children as young as 11 have been prosecuted as both the victim and sex offender.  In some states, even sexual touching involving consenting minors breaks the law. In other words, sex with a person under the age of majority or age of consent (depending on the specific state legislation) is always crime.  In a recently published Wisconsin Law Review article found here, I argue that such prosecutions can and often do lead to absurd results.

In Utah, which serves as a relative example, a child who commits “more than five ‘separate acts’ of sexual touching,” even without sexual penetration, could be convicted for “aggravated sexual abuse of a child.” In South Dakota, a minor can be adjudicated a delinquent and guilty of first-degree rape for one act of sexual penetration, regardless of consent if the consenting party is under thirteen.. Wisconsin’s statutory rape law reads similarly. These matters are particularly thorny in their application against children because legally a child cannot consent to sexual intercourse. In some states, including Utah, adolescent fondling constitutes sexual abuse of a child just as attempts to touch the buttocks, breasts, or “intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire.” Even consenting children will always be deemed “victims” in states that take this approach.

According to the CDC, nearly 50% of high school teenagers have had sexual intercourse.  In fact, by the 9th grade over 30% of girls and nearly 40% of boys have had sex.  In conservative states like Mississippi and South Carolina, pre-teen boys report the highest rates of pre-teen sex (19.1% and 17.1%, respectively).   Along with reporting sexual activity, white teens report the highest rates of combining sex with alcohol.

CDC studies expose the gaps in how parents view and understand youth sexuality. An American Broadcasting Company (ABC) News survey investigating parental and teens attitudes on sex places has some startling findings.  Consider this: while nearly ninety percent of parents surveyed confirmed that they spoke with their teens about sex, only forty nine percent of teens believed such conversations took place.

However, adolescent sexual activity raises questions for the law.  Should teens be prosecuted for committing the crime of rape if they engage in consensual sexual intercourse with children of their own or near age?  Is it ethical to prosecute children similarly to adults for having sex with other children?  More to come in Part III.

 

 

Kudos to This American Life

By Michelle Meyer

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a recent episode of This American Life, “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” about the quest of one Dr. Gilmer (Benjamin) to understand why another, beloved Dr. Gilmer (Vince), had brutally murdered his own father after hearing voices that compelled him to do so. The episode ends (spoiler alert) with the revelation that Vince suffers from Huntington’s, a rare, neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive physicial, cognitive, and psychological deterioration.

Listeners, it seemed to me, could naturally conclude from the episode that it was Vince’s Huntington’s that had caused him to murder his father. That might or might not be true in this particular case. Huntington’s can cause behavioral and mood changes, including irritability, aggression and belligerence. It can also cause (less often) psychosis. But even if Huntington’s caused Vince to murder his father, or somehow contributed to the murder, the extreme violence that Vince displayed — strangling his father, then sawing off his father’s fingertips to preclude identification — is in no way typical of the Huntington’s population as a whole. And so what most troubled me about the episode was its failure to note just how rare this kind of extreme violence is among those with Huntington’s, just as it is very rare among human beings generally. And so I wrote to TAL, requesting a clarification.

I’m happy to report that the TAL producer for the episode, Sarah Koenig — who had not intended to suggest any causal link between Vince’s murder of his father and his Huntington’s, much less between murder and Huntington’s more generally — has issued a clarification on the show’s blog, and promises to make a similar clarification in the episode itself, should they ever re-air it. Kudos to TAL, and many thanks to Sarah for being incredibly gracious in our exchanges.

One clarification deserves another. In my earlier blog post, I also worried that some listeners might  conclude that Vince’s father was similarly driven to commit horrific acts of sexual abuse on Vince and his sister because he, too, was (presumably) suffering from Huntington’s (an autosomal dominant genetic disease). Although I think that a listener who didn’t know better could reasonably conclude that Huntington’s causes people to become sexual predators almost as easily as they could conclude from the episode that Huntington’s causes people to become murderers, nothing in the episode suggests that Sarah, Benjamin Gilmer, or anyone else at TAL believe that Huntington’s causes sexual abuse, or that they intended for listeners to reach that conclusion. I regret anything in my earlier post that suggested otherwise.

Again, I’m very grateful to Sarah and everyone else at TAL for hearing me (and other listeners) out and for agreeing to make the clarification — and just in time for HD Awareness Month!

Too Young for Sex, But Old Enough for the Sex Offender Registry, Part I

By Michele Goodwin

This post is the first in a three part series on the use of criminal law to police teen sex.

A recent study by Human Rights Watch suggests that statutory rape law is a poor tool for reducing teen sexuality.  Their study and my forthcoming article, Law’s Limits: Regulating Statutory Rape Law, published by the Wisconsin Law Review concur on this point.  Consider an unfortunate case that underscores the importance of revisiting statutory rape law prosecutions in the United States.  In 2011, J.L. was adjudicated a delinquent, charged with first‑degree rape, and convicted under the South Dakota statutory rape statute. According to the South Dakota Supreme Court, J.L., a fourteen-year-old, “engaged in consensual sexual intercourse with his girlfriend, who was twelve” and only fifteen months his junior.  Despite both adolescents consenting to sex in this case, in the state of South Dakota, J.L.’s conviction will result in legal and extralegal penalties far more severe than that of an adult rapist who commits a sexually violent act against a college peer, a random woman, or during the commission of another crime.  This is because J.L.’s “victim” was under the age of thirteen.

In a provocative commentary, buried in a footnote, the South Dakota Supreme Court references the harsh penalties J.L. and other minors who engage in consensual sex with minors will encounter. The court explains, “[i]t appears that J.L. will be required to register as a sex offender for life.” In other words, J.L.’s “mark” as a sexual predator burdens him with the same potent and socially stigmatic punishment as that of a convicted, middle-aged pedophile who rapes a minor.  This prosecution and others similar point to the absurd results in many statutory rape cases involving teens who have consensual sex with teens.

As I note in the forthcoming article, had J.L.’s girlfriend been an adult and a nonconsensual sexual act occurred, he could qualify for release from the sex offender registry list after only ten years, rather than the life-term that now serves as his punishment.  In South Dakota, consensual sex between minors may result in a more severe punishment than nonconsensual sexual encounters either between adults or between a teenage male and an adult woman.   But, are such outcomes just?  Do they reflect broad social consensus?  Or do such prosecutions lead to absurd, untenable results?

In the coming week, my blog posts will address these and other relevant questions.

Hair, Stress, and the Law

A new study has found a relationship between cortisol levels in our hair and prevalence of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of abnormalities that increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease). Here’s how the New York Times describes the study:

High levels of cortisol — the so-called stress hormone — have been associated with cardiovascular disease in some studies, but not in others. This may be because measuring cortisol in blood or saliva at one point in time may pick up acute stress, but it fails to account for long-term stress. . . . Now Dutch researchers have assessed cortisol levels over several months by analyzing scalp hair samples. . . . The researchers measured the cortisol content in hair samples corresponding to roughly three months of growth from 283 older men and women, average age 75. They also gathered self-reported data about coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, lung disease, cancer and osteoporosis. . . . Compared with those in the lowest quarter for cortisol, those in the highest quarter had about three times the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In the actual paper, the researchers say little or nothing about “stress,” and if I recall correctly, the relationship between cortisol and stress can be complicated. But the research raises the possibility that we will someday identify reliable measurements of chronic stress over time. Of course, we may need more than just your hair. But in what I call the experiential future, such evidence—combined perhaps with other physiological, neurological, and psychiatric data—may enable us to make better assessments of chronic stress levels than we can now.

Better measurements of chronic stress could transform the way we measure damages in tort cases and measure punishment severity in criminal cases. Billions of dollars change hands every year based on difficult-to-verify assertions about pain and stress. Similarly, we adjust the severity of incarceration by changing the duration of sentences and pay almost no attention to the very different ways in which prisoners experience confinement. Measurements of stress levels could also help determine when an interrogation tactic constitutes torture.

Of course, forensic techniques encourage people to use countermeasures. In the cortisol-hair study, for example, one measurement was apparently affected by rates of shampooing while another was not. So I’m not suggesting there will be a silver bullet that solves all measurement problems. When evaluating the scientific research, however, it is important to remember just how bad we are at measuring stress levels now, despite the fact that we make such assessments every day. The technology need hardly be perfect to represent an improvement.

Fox on DNA Forensic Error and the Execution of Innocents

By Dov Fox

Willie Jerome Manning, a 44-year-old black man, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of white college students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in Mississippi. No physical evidence has ever linked Manning to the crime. And the Justice Department has just come clean that the forensic science used to prosecute Manning was fundamentally flawed.

A jury convicted Manning almost 20 years ago based on three kinds of circumstantial evidence. First was the testimony of his cousin and a jailhouse informant who claimed that he confessed the crime to them. The cousin had accused two other men before Manning, however, and the informant has since recanted altogether. Second were Steckler’s jacket, ring, and CD player from his car that Manning was arrested for trying to sell. Manning told police from the beginning that he had acquired the stolen property from someone he didn’t know.

Critical to the prosecution’s case was the last piece of evidence against Manning: expert testimony by an FBI agent that African American hair fragments were found in Miller’s car. Not only did DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene never incriminate Manning himself, however. Two days ago, the Justice Department notified Manning’s lawyer and the County District Attorney that “testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used in this case.” Federal officials have yet to detail the precise errors involved, but made clear in their letter that the FBI’s forensic evidence was unsound not least because it “exceeded the limits of science” at the time.

Keep reading…