Prof. Berman has a post up noting a CNN story on a plea deal for a female teacher who was charged with a sexual escapade (literally: they ran away to Mexico) with an underage male student. Originally facing a ten-year mandatory minimum on federal charges, the woman pled guilty and received a six-year sentence. Prof. Berman asks, “Am I wrong to wonder if the plea deal that allowed Peterson to be sentenced to far less than 10 years’ imprisonment would have been offered had the defendant been a man and the victim a 12-year-old girl?”
I guess there’s nothing wrong with wondering, but if Prof. Berman is passive-aggressively suggesting that the woman benefited from a double standard, I’m not so sure.
First, it’s not at all uncommon for prosecutors to over-charge to leverage a defendant into pleading guilty to a lesser offense. And this isn’t nothing — pleading ten years down to probation would be one thing, but six years of federal time is no joke.
Plus, the vast majority of federal cases end in guilty pleas. A big reason for that is that some prosecutors don’t want to go to trial, for various reasons. Two messy facts jump out at me in this story. One, the woman disputed the boy’s age — although prosecutors said he was twelve, her attorney said the kid was sixteen. (He was an illegal immigrant, so his paperwork isn’t exactly 100% on the up-and-up.) That fact might make the victim somewhat less sympathetic on the witness stand, if he even wanted to testify at all.
The other messy fact is the theory that there’s a double standard here. Some people think that teenage boys aren’t really “victims” of sex with older females, while teenage girls are. All it takes is one juror with that mentality to hang a jury.
So, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a rational, risk-averse prosecutor to feel comfortable getting six years in this case, despite concerns that the defendant’s sex saved her four years.
That brings up another point. Prof. Berman excerpted a good chunk of the CNN story on his site, but deleted a few sentences in the middle. Right after the sentence “She will be credited for nearly one year she has served and could get another year off for good behavior, said U,S. Attorney Joe Stecher,” Prof. Berman has ellipses, but the CNN story goes on to state, “The guilty plea doesn’t mean Peterson is off the hook on state charges, which include kidnapping and first-degree sexual assault.”
Those sound like pretty serious charges to me! My quick glance at the Nebraska criminal code suggests these crimes are punishable by one-year minimums and fifty-year maximums. (I’m not too familiar with the facts of the offense, but if the boy suffered “serious bodily injury,” the penalty for the kidnapping would be life without parole; query whether the statutory rape would be considered “serious bodily injury.”) Add that to the six years in the federal pen, and you’re talking a long stretch of time. Of course, it’s possible the woman could reach a plea agreement on the state charges, too, but I don’t think her outlook is all that rosy for the next decade or so.
Maybe Prof. Berman disagrees, but that doesn’t seem to be a clearly insufficient punishment for this woman. Sure, it’s possible a man would get more time on these facts. But then again, this helpful Slate article from a couple of years ago argues that the notion that female teachers who have sex with students get much lighter sentences than similarly-situated males is largely a myth. Am I wrong to wonder if Prof. Berman might be wrong on this one?