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Florida lesbian teen won't take plea on sex crime charge
Windy City Times Special Investigative Series: LGBTQs and the Criminal Legal System
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times

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A Sebastian, Fla., teenager is being charged with a crime that could potentially place her on the state's sex offender registry. At the same time, some publicly disseminated statements about her case appear to be inaccurate.

The Indian River County state attorney's office arrested Kaitlyn Hunt, now 18 years old, on a charge of "lewd and lascivious battery of a child 12 to 16 years of age" because of her relationship with a younger woman. The charges are that Hunt was in a sexual relationship with a minor, then aged 14, starting in 2012.

On Friday, May 24, the lawyers for Kaitlyn Hunt sent out a statement that their client "is choosing not to accept the current plea offer by the State of Florida." The plea deal would have allowed her to avoid registering as a sex offender if she had agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges of child abuse; Colton had recommended two years of house arrest followed by a year's probation.

Refusing the plea offer means that the case will now go to trial. If Hunt is convicted of "lewd and lascivious battery," there is a possibility of her having to register as a sex offender, although she could be exempt from registration under the "Romeo and Juliet" exception.

The lawyers also pointed to the statutory nature of the crime: "If this incident occurred 108 days earlier when she was 17, we wouldn't even be here." They added, "Along with Kaitlyn and her family, we are going to fight to have the law changed so no other teenager finds themselves in this same position created by the State of Florida and prosecuted unfairly."

The case has recently gained attention from large numbers of people after Hunt's father, Steven Hunt, created a page on Facebook, "Free Kate," and then a petition on . The petition had already seen nearly 150,000 signatures at the time this went to press. The original goal was 1,406 signatures.

The public outrage has been fueled by a strong viral campaign, and the signatures of celebrities—the author Anne Rice and the actor Evan Rachel Wood. Most recently, the group Anonymous, famous for its online guerrilla-style takedowns of those it sees as needing to be held accountable, has apparently voiced its support. Press reports say the group has "vowed" to collect 200,000 signatures to demand that the officials in charge be made to resign.

The backlash against the state attorney's office, and against the parents of the younger person who made the original complaint, is a result of the case's being widely read as homophobic. Anonymous and several commenters on the petition insist that the prosecution is a result of "intolerance." The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida posted a statement about the matter at .

However, a Windy City Times investigation indicates that "facts" in the case have been misrepresented and that those misrepresentations have largely undergirded the criticisms of charging Hunt with a crime.

Furthermore, while there has been a furor about charging an 18-year-old for a consensual relationship and her possibly being placed on Florida's sex offender registry, there is less questioning or backlash against such registries' existence or their rationale.

The story of Kaitlyn Hunt first came to public attention a week ago when her parents began making the case to the press that their daughter had been singled out by her high school basketball coach for being involved with the younger student. Hunt had been arrested in February. Several news stories, based on her father's Facebook page's account, reported or led readers to believe that the younger student was 15 and that Hunt was arrested on or after her 18th birthday.

On May 19, someone identifying himself as Hunt's uncle, Andrew Kenneth Gay, attempted to correct the misinformation that he said was floating around. On the Facebook page "Free Kate," he wrote, "We are not arguing that Kate is being prosecuted by the State of Florida because of her sexual orientation. The law is the law, but the law is unjust. Many 18-year-old men have also been unjustly prosecuted for dating underage girls in their high schools. We are arguing that it is unfair to expect high school students in the same school not to fraternize. It certainly shouldn't be grounds for criminal prosecution."

Gay also stated that Hunt turned 18 in August 2012. He wrote, "As much as we want your support, we also want to keep things accurate and free of exaggeration, even when it engenders sympathy."

Still, at the time of this article's going to press, Steven Hunt's petition insists that "Kaitlyn's girlfriend's parents are pressing charges because they are against the same-sex relationship, even though their daughter has stated that this is a consensual relationship. The two girls began dating while Kaitlyn was 17 but her girlfriend's parents blamed Kaitlyn for their daughter's homosexuality. They waited until after Kaitlyn turned 18 and went to the police to have charges brought against her."

In an interview with WCT, State Attorney Bruce Colton said the complaint did originate with the parents of the younger person, who went to the sheriff's office. From there, "law enforcement did an investigation and confirmed that under the law the defendant had violated a felony statute and got an arrest warrant and arrested her."

Asked if that was after she turned 18, Colton responded, confirming Gay's words, "That's one of the pieces of misinformation going around. She was 18 before this relationship began, before she started talking to this young lady. She turned 18 in August of 2012."

He continued, "Based on the law enforcement investigation, they started talking with each other in September or October 2012, in school, and started a sexual relationship in November or December. So she was already 18 and considered an adult under the law when they began even talking to each other."

Colton added, "It's been reported the victim was 15. The picture that's been painted is that this was a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. It's actually an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old, The victim was 14 at the time this began and was 14 throughout. She did not turn 15 until two months after the arrest."

About the nature of the investigation, Colton said that "they interviewed the victim and they interviewed the defendant and they looked at text messages. There was a controlled phone call [legal under Florida law, and not a wiretapping]. The victim, with her parents present and along with law enforcement, made a call to the defendant, and that call was recorded. In that phone call, the defendant talked about the sexual relationship."

Many of the press reports and Steven Hunt's petition state that the now-15-year-old was against filing charges. Asked about that, Colton responded, "I really don't know what she's saying in that regard, but the victim is a minor, and in this case, like any criminal case, while the victim is taken into consideration, the victim's wishes aren't what necessarily control the outcome of the case."

He expanded on the issue of consent: "It was a consensual relationship, but the law specifically states that consent by the victim is not a defense for this crime. When the legislature made the law, its purpose was to protect children from being influenced by older adults, so consent was specifically put in there as not being a defense."

Asked what he thought of the public response, Colton said, "I have no real response—it doesn't change anything. The problem I have with the public response is that many of the people who are making this response are under the impression that this had been an ongoing relationship from the time that they were both juveniles. That's not true. And also the misinformation is that this case is only being prosecuted because they're gay, which has absolutely nothing to do with it."

Colton emphasized that "at no time" was his office told that the parents' main objection was because the two are both female. He also stated that none of the facts indicated any reason to change the statute. Asked if there had been other instances where the perpetrator was an adult man and the victim a minor, Colton responded, "Absolutely, yes, I can't give you a number, but I can tell you we [the state attorney's office for the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Indian River County] cover a four-county area. We don't have as many as we do burglaries or thefts, but we do have them on a somewhat regular basis, cases like this, of hetero relationships, and even gay relationships. Those are far fewer, but we do have cases of this nature."

At this point in time, if Hunt is convicted of the charges that have been brought against her, she would have to register as a sex offender. Additionally, she faces anywhere from 7-1/2 to 15 years in prison.

But, said Colton, "if the judge withholds adjudication of guilt, then she can petition the court to be exempted from registration as a sex offender [under the state's "Romeo and Juliet" law]. But we've offered a plea in this case that would eliminate all of that, that hasn't been accepted or rejected yet."

He added, "The media is presenting the case as if we have two young kids in love who are in love and are being persecuted—which isn't the case, but that doesn't sell papers."

WCT tried repeatedly to get in touch with the Hunt family and Kaitlyn Hunt's attorney. Their only response has been a statement that "[o]ur family is scared for our daughter Kate and are doing everything we can to prevent an unjust law from ruining her life … . Kaitlyn did nothing wrong and certainly nothing that warrants the type of punishment she faces." It added, "It's clear that people around the world feel our daughter is being unfairly prosecuted and that we really need to examine how these laws are negatively impacting young people in our country."

As WCT's prior coverage has reported, such instances—of teens placed on sex offender registries, or even of adults charged with a crime for consensual sexual relationships they may have had with minors just two or three years younger than they at the time—are in fact very common. LGBTQ people are particularly prone to being watched and criminalized both for their presence in Internet chat rooms devoted to porn and for "public" sex—both are common activities among straight people, but LGBTQ people in particular tend to be targeted.

Contrary to claims that Hunt's case would never have arisen if she or the other person had been male, instances of such arrests among heterosexuals are in fact so common that they are commonly referred to as "Romeo and Juliet" instances, referring to the fact that both parties were young at the time of the sexual encounter. There are even specific "Romeo and Juliet" exceptions to statutory rape laws in various states, including Florida. These are designed to provide recourse to alleged perpetrators when the situation concerns consensual sex between minors or an adult 18 years and a minor 14-16 years of age.

WCT also contacted the ACLU's Florida office. In its statement published online, it said, "The ACLU of Florida condemns the prosecution of 18-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt. The facts as we understand them suggest that the state is prosecuting Kaitlyn for engaging in behavior that is both fairly innocuous and extremely common."

The ACLU also stated, "Application of this law to Kaitlyn's conduct is another example of the troubling trend in Florida and across the country of criminalizing teenagers." When WCT asked if the ACLU had a statement on the case or a statement on the merits of sex offender registries, it did not respond.

The ACLU also said it was not representing Hunt. However, hours later, A. Julia Graves, the attorney for Kaitlyn Hunt, sent out an email message echoing the ACLU statement almost exactly and stating that she is now working with the organization and with Equality Florida on the case.

In her email, Graves said, "It is my hope that Kaitlyn will be able to move forward with her life and an important dialogue begins in this nation about adolescent relationships and the age of consent regardless of sexual orientation." She added, "Kaitlyn and her parents have been given until Friday [May 24] to decide whether to go to trial and have the most intimate details of the relationship played out in public or to take a plea agreement that includes forever having a record even if adjudication is withheld. In addition with the sex offender conditions, Kaitlyn would be subjected to sitting in group counseling meetings with legitimate convicted sex offenders that the law was truly meant for."

WCT also called the Sebastian, Fla., school district office but did not receive a response.

LGBTQs and the Criminal Legal System series to date in full layout form here: .

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