Cooper Fleishman hopes 17 year-old sexual assault victim Savanna Dietrich will be shown the same leniency in sentencing for violating a gag order that her attackers were shown in their punishments.
This young woman is Savannah Dietrich, a 17-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky. Frustrated with the gag order she faced after the two boys who sexually assaulted her (and took photo evidence, then shared the images with friends) entered a plea deal that amounted to a slap on the wrist, Dietrich violated the court order and spoke openly about the incident, revealing her attackers’ names on Twitter.
She now faces a $500 fine and 180 days’ jail time for holding the court in contempt. Dietrich, not her attackers, will be the one facing severe penalties.
Could she have handled it differently? Yes, she could have petitioned the court to vacate the gag order. She didn’t; perhaps she didn’t know (or care) that she could. What she did was stand up for herself when no one else would stand up for her. She’s now given up her own anonymity, consenting to media coverage and sharing her story publicly. What she did was admirable.
“There you go, lock me up,” she wrote. “I’m at the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it.”
She had good reason to be outraged. Her assailants got their plea deal — their sentence is yet to be determined — without her consent. They didn’t need it. The victim in rape and sexual-assault cases is considered a “witness” to the crime. And often, as Dietrich was, they’re silenced.
As Amanda Hess writes in Slate:
Public officials and victim’s advocates have long grappled with the question of why more than one-half of rape victims do not report the crime to police. Rape trials can be long, grueling, humiliating, stigmatizing, alienating, and ultimately difficult to prove. But as Dietrich’s case shows, the criminal justice process can also rob the victim of control over her own narrative.
The two boys were treated kindly by the court because of their age. Why not Dietrich? Will she face the same amnesty for her contempt charge?
As minors, the boys’ criminal records will likely disappear when they become adults. When your identity is protected, the lesson isn’t “don’t rape,” but “don’t get caught.”
Imagine the same boys two years later. They’re college students in Kentucky. The same situation occurs: An underage girl passes out from drinking. They get handsy with her, strip her. It’s for laughs. They take pictures. It was her fault for drinking too much, they say. She should handle her liquor. She’s under 21; she shouldn’t be drinking anyway. She’s paying the price.
School officials don’t know these two boys have a history of assault. Their peers don’t know. Their victims don’t know. They’ve been protected by the law. Their peers only know of a case in which a 17-year-old girl who spoke out against her attackers was given jail time while the anonymous boys who sexually assaulted her escaped with a reduced sentence. They believe the assault must not have been that bad. They believe she had it coming. Why else would the court show leniency toward the attackers and not their victim?
The administration doesn’t quite know how to handle this sexual-assault case, but no one wants to ruin the well-liked attackers’ lives, and there’s a precedent for leniency in Kentucky law. While the attackers are again given slaps on the wrist, the second victim is harassed and humiliated for speaking out against the two boys. Unable to handle the abuse, she eventually transfers.
It was a human-rights victory. It’s chilling to see an unsinkable organization repent for its own hubris. Still, there will be many who won’t find the punishment enough — not when its penalties are focused on the school’s reputation, the tarnished status of the “legacy.” The aftermath and the public’s attention won’t be centered on the victims, it’ll be on reinstating the legendary football program and rebuilding its dominance. It’ll be common knowledge that this above-the-law attitude is what doomed at least 10 children. But everyone loves a comeback, right?
I wish I had a tenth of the bravery Ms. Dietrich has. She’ll find herself smeared in the courts, in the press, in her school, in her community — for refusing to be silenced and paying the price. But her retaliation will make attackers think twice, and her willingness to speak up will give future victims the courage to do the same.