Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

Lawyers see no evidence of gay bias in teen sex prosecution

The two girls met playing high school basketball in a small community on the east coast of Florida and had a sexual relationship.

Now the older girl, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt, is charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Her parents have mounted a campaign to have the charges reduced and are saying the prosecution is motivated by anti-gay prejudice.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Internet activist group Anonymous have condemned the prosecution, the later group saying the case is motivated by "intolerance."

But prosecutors and defense attorneys alike say the charges against Hunt would have happened whether she was gay or straight. Florida did pass a law that helps teens who engage in a consensual relationship stay off Florida's sex offender registry. But Florida law still makes it a criminal act for someone to have sex with someone under the age of 16.

"It's not like we follow a special procedure just because these are boyfriend, girlfriend cases," said Rita Peters, chief of the sex offender and child abuse division of the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office. "We look at the ages and the facts and rely on what the victim's family wants. We look at the defendant's conduct. We look at everything."

Charles Lambert, a Tampa attorney who has handled several of these cases, including a same-sex relationship involving boys, said "some attorneys were debating this yesterday and the general consensus was that we don't see a big difference in how these cases are prosecuted based on gender or sexuality."

Most of these cases end up being prosecuted, he said, because an adult — like a pastor or teacher or the parent of the younger teen — finds out and goes to the police. That's what happened in Hunt's case.

Hunt's family publicized the case last week in an effort to get public support behind their daughter, who was expelled from Sebastian River High School because of the relationship.

Hunt began dating her then 14-year-old classmate in November. Sometime before Christmas, they had sex in a bathroom at Sebastian River High School. According to an arrest affidavit, they saw each other until mid January.

Kaitlyn's father, Steve R. Hunt, said in a petition on change.org, that Kaitlyn was "not guilty of anything other than a high school romance." Before she was expelled, she participated in cheerleading, basketball and chorus and was voted "most school spirit," he wrote. He said the girl's parents are pressing charges because they are opposed to their daughter's lesbian relationship. They "blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter's homosexuality."

The Indian River County State Attorney's Office offered Hunt a deal to plea to a lesser charge of child abuse and spend two years on house arrest and one year of probation. She would not have to register as a sex offender. She has until Friday to decide.

In 2007, Florida passed a law that recognized that cases involving consensual sex between teens are different. The "Romeo and Juliet" law allows those charged to petition the court to stay off the sex offender registry. The victim must be at least 14 and the accused can be no more than four years older. Some 240 petitions have been granted under the law.

"It was a step in the right direction," Lambert, the defense attorney, said. "But it didn't decriminalize that behavior."

Still, he said, it's unlikely Hunt will get prison time. Prosecutors and courts recognize these cases are different from those involving sex offenders who commit heinous crimes.

"There is a night and day difference in terms of what the prosecution is looking for and their willingness to negotiate the case," Lambert said. "Even though the black and white letter of the law has not made an exception for these cases, it's definitely something that's evolving."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird and Times wires contributed to this report.

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