Rape shield and juvenile confidentiality laws are used to protect victim’s identities and reputations. These laws have always been controversial, as they usually make it extremely difficult for criminal defendants to defend themselves from rape and/or other sexual crime charges. These violations of the right to due process were usually tolerated to encourage victims to use the legal system. Savannah Dietrich’s story turns this established debate on its head and pits these confidentiality laws against another important area of Constitutional law.
Dietrich was at a party when she passed out after consuming too much alcohol. While Dietrich was unconscious, a pair of boys undressed the than sixteen year old and sexually abused her. The extent of their sexual attack is unknown, although they did post pictures of Dietrich online. Savannah discovered these pictures a month later. The boys were subsequently charged with sexual assault and misdemeanor voyeurism (looking at someone nude without their consent), although they reached a plea agreement with the prosecution. Dietrich was unaware of the plea bargain until the initial hearings. During the hearings, Judge Dee McDonald ordered all participants not to discuss the crime or the hearings. Dietrich, however, wanted her story to become public and subsequently began twittering about the case, including the names of her attackers. The defense wanted the judge to charge her with contempt of court, but later withdrew the motion after public outcry.
There are many reasons the judge and the defense wanted the gag order, or order to remain silent, in place. Although the defense had already come to a plea agreement, thereby admitting their guilt and avoiding a jury trial, sentencing has yet to be given. The defense may fear public opinion would prejudice the judge into giving a harsher sentence then intended. In addition, the defendants are minors and the judge is compelled by law to keep the identities of all minors involved in a crime a secret for as long as possible.
The plaintiff, however, has already had her identity stripped from her. Part of the boy’s crime was posting nude pictures of Dietrich over the internet. Identifying the boys who did that to her on Twitter hardly seems to compare. Dietrich and her parents also welcome the media attention and consider it a violation of Dietrich’s right to free speech to prevent her from telling the public about what happened. Indeed, Dietrich’s story has already inspired an entire Facebook page dedicated to supporting her.
The irony of the situation, as stated earlier, is that the laws which legalize the judge’s gag order were partly intended for Dietrich’s protection. Before the 21st century, it was not uncommon for victims of sexual assault, usually women, to be blamed for what happened to them. In fact, had Dietrich been living in that era, her underage drinking would have been the focus of the story. The rape shield laws were intended to prevent the defense from using that to assault her character and the juvenile confidentiality laws were intended to allow young women like Dietrich to move on with their lives after the trial was over. It must be noted that Judge McDonald’s order covered Dietrich as well; the defendants were not allowed to talk about Dietrich anymore than Dietrich was allowed to talk about the defendants.
The 21st century, however, has wrought significant changes to the world the criminal justice system operates in. Not just in communications technology, but also how the public views women who are sexually assaulted. Although the laws which obligated Judge McDonald to put the gag order on were done with the best of intentions, they did so with the assumption that women were powerless against a public perception which was completely biased against victims of sexual assault.
Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate these laws, not just for the criminal defendants who may be accused, but also for women like Savannah Dietrich who wish to regain power over their own lives.