SAVANNAH DIETRICH: PLEA DEAL, When Tweeting is a Crime


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BY Adeyemi Oshunrinade

Her ordeal began when she got drunk at a gathering and fell asleep; 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich of Louisville Kentucky woke up to realize she had been sexually assaulted by two teenage boys she knew. Her offenders did not limit their offense to the sexual assault; they went further by taking photos of her and sharing them on the internet for the world to see.

When the court accepted a plea deal by both offenders that required the parties to desist from talking about the case, 17-year-old Dietrich felt she was robbed of her rights to fair justice and decided to take her case to the worldwide web, by tweeting the names of her offenders for the entire world to see. Her action did not sit well with the attorneys for the boys; they demanded the judge find Dietrich in contempt for violating the confidentiality of the juvenile hearing and order not to speak about the case.

So far, the court has decided to vacate the contempt charge against Dietrich; but whether Dietrich’s disobedience of the gag-order warrants criminal sanction or not is another issue for debate. Since a plea deal was reached, many have criticized the court for allowing such a settlement in this case but first, it is important to know what a plea deal is and why it is often considered in criminal prosecution.

A plea deal or a plea bargain is just as it sounds; it is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defense team, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a prescribed charge in return for a concession from the prosecutor. Sometimes, a plea deal means the defendant is given the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge of a serious offense, or to a single charge out of many.

Plea bargaining is part of the justice system which has found usage in the judicial system of both common law and civil law countries; in recent years, its usage has been criticized by victims’ defense advocates, as a tool for denying victims of the most serious crimes the right to fair justice. The courts have been attacked for helping criminals get away with serious charges, by allowing plea deals to go through. However, it is proper to mention that the judicial system allows for such deals, for reasons that in most cases are in the best interests of the victim and the society at large.

Even in serious offenses such as in homicide cases, it is not uncommon for a plea deal to be reached depending on the circumstances of each case; nonetheless, the court may reject such pleas in the most serious offense such as in a death penalty case, involving the unlawful taking of a human life with malice aforethought. Like what happened in the Dietrich’s case, courts allow plea bargains in criminal proceedings and minor offenses for other reasons.

First, plea bargaining is considered cost effective as it helps the state and taxpayers reduce the costs of litigation. A criminal proceeding can cost thousands of dollars and sometimes, the bill can run in millions. In a case where the victim or the defendant cannot afford a counsel, the state must provide one as part of the legal requirement. The cost of trial and discoveries can be a heavy burden on the state and taxpayers if not properly managed; therefore, by allowing a plea deal the state is able to cut excessive spending on litigation.

A plea deal is also encouraged to avoid a lengthy trial; it is time saving as well as cost effective. A criminal case can proceed for months or years depending on the situation; this does not only cost money but delay justice as well. The question is, why allow a case that could be settled in weeks to last for months or even years? The principle is that, once the defendant admits his guilt, the next phase should be criminal sanction and sentencing. However, the prosecution must still prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.

Sometimes, it is in the best interest of the victim, to avoid litigation; though, Dietrich has decided to open her case to the public, most rape and sexual assault victims don’t want to go through trial. Many compare doing so to reliving the agony of being a victim of sexual assault, and in most situations it is in the best interest of the victim to have the case settled sooner. This does not mean the defendant gets away with his crime, but only that justice is served in the best way that protects privacy of the victim.

The merit of a plea deal to one charged is that, it allows the defendant to avoid the risk of conviction at trial on a more serious offense; for example, a defendant charged with a felony theft crime, may agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor theft which sometimes, carry a six month jail time or no jail time. By pleading to a lesser charge, the defendant is able to avoid spending time in state prison.

The fact that Dietrich’s offenders are minors, may have played a huge role in the deal; they are juveniles and in most cases, the courts are lenient while handling juvenile cases and usually refer them to the juvenile courts; irrespective of the fact that rape is a felony, a crime which if committed by an adult would amount to criminal prosecution and sentencing.

As earlier indicated, whether Dietrich had done wrong by disobeying the court’s order is open to debate; though, Dietrich has a First Amendment right to speak about herself and her case, a gag order is a court order that must be obeyed. But based on the situation involved here, she may have done what a victim of sexual assault and humiliation would do and therefore, excusable. Also, Dietrich is a 17-year-old considered a minor and so far, there is no indication she received her attorney’s counsel to tweet the names of her offenders.

Irrespective of the outcome, the plea deals reached by the defendants in the Dietrich case are a choice of two evils; none is good but only that one is better than the other. What remains is, where do we go from here and how can we stop such from happening again to any child? Education is key and a campaign against sexual violence and assault; the justice system can only do what it is designed to do that is, delivery of justice. But as members of the society, parents need do more to educate their minors about sexual violence.

Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests’ (2011) and ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment’ (2012); follow on twitter @san0670.

Image of sexual assault awareness from nsvrc.org/saam

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Categories: Criminal act, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Disorderly conduct, LAW

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