Archive for Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Special cases?

Many observers are questioning a judge’s decision to order two men to serve just 60 days in jail for raping a local girl.

January 20, 2004

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Without having heard all of the evidence in the trials that convicted two men of raping a 13-year-old Lawrence girl, it's difficult to criticize the sentencing decisions of the presiding judge, but a few facts gleaned from these two cases just don't seem to support the conclusion that serving 60 days in jail is sufficient punishment for these two men.

In separate trials, juries found two 19-year-olds, William N. Haney of Lawrence and Brian K. Ussery of Tonganoxie, guilty of raping the girl in a Lawrence residence. The presumed penalty for rape under state law is at least 13 years in prison, but Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin made a sentencing exception in these cases. Instead of 13 years in prison, both Haney and Ussery were sentenced to 30 months in prison with three years of post-release supervision. However, Martin then suspended those sentences and ordered each man to serve 60 days in jail followed by probation.

Sixty days or 13 years; it's a pretty big difference.

During Ussery's sentencing, Martin said her decision was influenced by the fact that the 13-year-old victim was so drunk before the rape that she couldn't walk up a flight of steps and that she was an "active participant" in the sexual act. At Haney's sentencing, Martin also noted that the victim was almost of adult age and Haney was barely an adult.

How either of these factors mitigates the fact that these two men raped a 13-year-old girl isn't clear. Either justification seems to carry with it an implication that the girl somehow was responsible for her own rape. Perhaps prosecutors didn't adequately convince the judge of the seriousness of the crime.

According to state law, having sex with someone under 14 is considered rape regardless of whether it is forced. It's also considered rape when a woman of any age can't give consent because she is intoxicated. Not only was this girl only 13, she was so drunk she couldn't walk up some steps, meaning she certainly would be incapable of giving consent. It's also logical to wonder what role the men played in the girl obtaining and consuming alcohol before the rape.

Although defense attorneys tried to portray the girl's testimony as unreliable because she had been drinking, law enforcement officials testified that Ussery had confessed to having sex with the girl. Both men were convicted of rape. The juries were convinced a crime had been committed. Why weren't the sentences consistent with the crime? Even a juvenile offender who pleaded guilty to attempted rape in the case was sentenced to serve 30 months in custody.

This 13-year-old girl had to testify in court about the events of that night three times. She and her family have had to deal with the trauma not only of the rape but of the legal proceeding. To see these two men be convicted and then walk out of court with 60-day sentences is beyond disappointing. It seems simply unjust. The Douglas County district attorney is appealing the sentences, and it will be interesting to see whether a higher court agrees with the penalties handed down.

The outcome of these two trials may make it easier to understand why many rape victims are hesitant, or even unwilling, to come forward to report and aid in the prosecution of their assailants.

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