“INNOCENT INNOCENCE?” By George

Breaking News: A fifteen year old has been charged in the shooting death of his neighbor. The District Attorney says the adolescent will be tried as an adult.

Tragic news like this has become common place in the twenty-first century. Murder, such a strong emotion, such a violent judgment, such a finite act, must only be committed by someone of an adult mindset. A child would be too innocent in nature to commit such a brutal crime. How easy is it for us to accept those notions? By the law and how we prosecute it, a 15 year old is seemingly adult enough to commit murder. Many juries have handed down that verdict – even to juveniles aged down to twelve years old.

With this in mind, I would like to build upon last month’s post But Names May Always Hurt Me – to build upon the notions of assumption, judgment, and labels as they apply to innocence, perceived or realized.

Breaking News: States are now enacting new “sexting” laws crafted to more appropriately handle the avalanche of cases dealing with teenagers (twelve to eighteen years old) charged as sex offenders. The new laws will help protect under the age of consent teens from having their lives ruined by the permanent stigma of the “sex offender” label, and all it entails.

Recently on MSNBC, Chris Hayes was reporting how rampant and commonplace it is for teens to use their smart phones, tablets, and built-in camera ready computers to take obscene photos and videos of themselves to send to friends. It is so pervasive that many people think “Well, so what? Who hasn’t done that?” Parents are now advocating for less severe punishments as prescribed by the law when it comes to prosecuting their children for “sexting” – which by legal definition is production, possession, and distribution of child pornography. Pornography the teens created of their own volition.

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“I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.” Psalms 32:5 (RSV)

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Armed with a gun, a 15 year old is an adult, a vicious killer. Armed with technology, a 15 year old is an innocent caught up in the everyday actions of her porn-generating classmates. The societal, mob mentality excuse of “everyone is doing it, so it’s okay” suggests they shouldn’t be responsible for their actions.

I’m not so eager to agree with that blanket excuse. However, it does beg the question, “If an adolescent can be an adult, the aggressor, when it comes to murder, why can’t an adolescent be an adult, the aggressor, when it comes to sex?” Why are we so willing to accept the myths of sexual innocence, while rejecting innocence when it applies to extreme violence?

Some experts believe that a person under the age of eighteen (a child, a minor, an adolescent, a teenager) is able to be rehabilitated when it comes to a sexual offense. They can be successfully taught that their behavior was wrong, and they will have a low rate of re-offence. Those same experts also contend that once the age of 18 is attained (adulthood), there is little hope of rehabilitation; plus, a high rate of recidivism. In other words: under 18, you are fixable; over 18, you might as well be that 15 year old with a gun and sentenced as a murderer, or in this case, sentenced as a sex offender and labeled for life. [The myth about the high recidivism rate of sex offenders, plus additional S.O. myths are debunked by data in sources such as “Unprecedented: How Sex Offender Laws Are Impacting Our Nation” by J.B. Haralson and J.R. Cordeiro. PCG Legacy, 2012.]

New “sexting” laws try to lessen the severity of punishment for child porn exchanged between adolescents. But what happens when a teen sexts not to another teen, but to an adult instead?

Many teachers and coaches these days are at risk of being the target of an innocent’s vengeance. With technology in hand, a minor who has just been reprimanded or punished has retaliation options that have never existed before. Every cell phone carrying student has the ability to have any teacher or coach removed, prosecuted, and imprisoned. In no more than ten minutes, a student could go into a restroom, or other secluded space, take a few obscene pictures, and e-mail or text them to the unknowing victim that is an adult. But let’s not go down the road of vindictiveness, let’s stay within the boundaries of innocence and affection.

A handsome, early thirty-something high school coach is the giggling object of infatuation by many of the girls at school. As the girls navigate their own developing feelings of sexuality and the socially accepted boundaries, some cross the line.

One girl places a yellow “Sweetheart’s Day” rose under the windshield wiper of the coach’s truck. Another one pulls the juvenile prank of asking him in class, surrounded by a group of her girlfriends, if he’d “like a screw?” When he turns around, she opens her hand to reveal a drywall screw resting in her puerile, but sweaty palm.

“Oh, those are harmless schoolgirl crushes and pranks,” you say.

But one of the girls, a 15 year old, sends the coach, the object of her budding affections, a topless photo of herself as an anonymous text – a sext. All of her girlfriends brag about sexting their boyfriends, and this girl has even seen some of the photos the boyfriends have sexted in reply – now considered trophies by her friends. (Remember, all of those photos are child porn.) She wants to fit in and be as daring.

The coach opens the text and sees a naked, headless photo of a female’s chest. He has no idea who it is or who sent it – the sender’s number was blocked as “unknown.” He deletes the photo, considering it a wrong number; a missent text.

That night, the girl’s mother decides to check her daughter’s phone after seeing a sexual predator expose on Nancy Grace. Horrified, the mother discovers her daughter’s sext.

Panicked and furious, the mother berates her daughter into eventually telling that the image went to the coach. The incident is immediately reported to the authorities. The mother tells the FBI agents, “Obviously, the coach did something to encourage and entice my innocent, straight-A child into sending him that photo.”

Later that evening, with guns drawn, the FBI arrests the coach for receiving and possessing child pornography – that lone image in his phone’s trash bin. The girl, not wanting or able to admit her desire for the coach, thereby shaming her family, never admits that the coach is innocent of any wrongdoing. This aberration of her otherwise good character is never revealed.

The coach fervently denies the allegations, to no one’s belief. Her deviance is now his depravity.

The $30,000 lawyer instructs the coach to accept the Federal prosecutor’s plea deal of five years, instead of taking the unwinnable risk of going to trial and being sentenced to 15 years or more – something the Feds have promised to seek should the coach not take the plea of guilty deal. [When the FBI arrested the coach, they also seized his Internet-accessible technology. Like some men, the coach had pornographic images on his home computer. Of the images the Feds found, all were legal to possess; however, there were two images that the Feds could not prove the age of the models, but that was of no concern to them. More importantly, the coach and his lawyer couldn’t prove the models were of age. He had to prove his innocence; the Feds only had to insinuate his guilt to use the questionable photos as proof of child porn against him. Gone is the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”]

Some of the newly proposed sexting laws would not protect him because he is an adult. Remember, he’s over 18, therefore not able to be rehabilitated. Although he wasn’t guilty to begin with, that is of no consequence. Once he signs the plea deal, he is forever “guilty.” Period.

What would your assumptions be had you heard a news report of the coach’s arrest. Would you automatically assume his guilt, or would you ever consider a female student could be the predator?

We naturally assume no one would ever sign a guilty plea if they were innocent. But, with your back to the wall, would you sign to save yourself 10 to 15 additional years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? [Of the S.O.s I know at Oakdale, those who went to trial, took the risk, to defend their innocence have longer sentences, sometimes two to three times longer, than those who accepted a plea deal, whether truly innocent or guilty. Oddly enough, the further away one gets from actual physical contact with a minor, the longer the prison sentence tends to be. The lesser involved crime of technology with no physical contact holds the stiffest penalty.]

Is the teen girl any less of a murderer because she used a smart phone than the 15 year old with the gun? The coach may still be alive, but to what end?

He’ll never coach or teach again. He’ll only be allowed to see his underage children in the company of court supervision. His wife divorced him. His friends and family now shun him. He had to declare bankruptcy, ruining his excellent credit rating, because of his inability to earn enough money while working in the prison’s laundry department for 15 cents an hour to pay child support and his outstanding debts. Yes, he’s alive, but what kind of life does he have?

How would you survive? Could you?

With our advancements in technology, coupled with our societal idea that childhood should extend farther into maturity than ever before in history, is it any wonder that prosecuting adult men for child porn is the new slam-dunk win for our politicians, judicial system, and the Federal government?

Not so long ago it was the societal norm for people to get married right after high-school graduation. Most unmarried girls by the age of 21 bore the stigma of “old maid.” Some current research shows the brain doesn’t finish developing until the age of 21. Therefore, is a 20 year old a child?

Gone are the days of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” under the bleachers. Now that game happens alone, secluded in a bedroom while being transmitted across the ether – and perhaps perpetually re-transmitted. As a society we have such a knee-jerk reaction to the topic of sex. We find it hard to believe there are over-sexual 15 year olds and under-sexual 45 year olds. Who is the innocent and who is the corrupt? Who is deserving of forgiveness?

All are deserving!

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“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’” Romans 15:1-3 (RSV)

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Covering our eyes to the realities of sex and technology does no one justice. Yes, there are adult predators, and they should be reasonably punished for the crimes they commit. But, there are also teen predators who end up having their victims unreasonably punished for the teens’ crimes of “innocence.” Where is that justice? Who is brave enough to say that the devil also tempts those under 18? Where is the protection, the Nancy Grace-style advocacy, for innocent adults?

The current societal stigma of the “sex offender” label is severe. We need to understand that yes, all child molesters are sex offenders, but not all sex offenders are child molesters.

Would you interview, hire, or work next to a convicted sex offender? What if he was that coach? Would you want that girl or the murderous boy babysitting your child or working next to you?

Ironically, you’ll never publicly know about the teens’ actions, because they won’t have to publicly register their deeds on job applications, notify their neighborhood of their residency, or be listed on the Internet like the Sex Offender coach. Could you survive the glaring eye of public judgment for your assumed sins – for the rest of your life?

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“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” Galatians 6:1-2 (RSV)

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Here are some difficult issues to ponder:

–       How do we affect change to our views of sexual innocence and advancing technology?

–       How do we overcome the “child molester” stereotype that clouds our consciousness when we hear the all-encompassing label of “sex offender?”

–       How do we change the current laws to more accurately classify “sex offender” from the one-size-fits-all stigma of punishment imposed by a lifetime requirement of public registry?

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