by Robert and Kathy B
Two years ago our normal family life was turned upside down. My wife and I had successfully raised three children to adulthood. We were working on our youngest who was the academic star of the family. He was a couple of weeks away from graduating in the top tenth in his class with a full tuition scholarship to the University of Arizona.
Our son never had any problems with drugs or alcohol and was never a problem in school; the periodic calls from the principal’s office were to tell us our son was getting an award or accolade for a science fair project. He reached the Eagle Scout accomplishment a couple of months earlier and we were extremely proud of his courtesy, honesty and integrity.
On my birthday a phone call came from the police department that our son had been arrested. My wife and I dropped everything and went down to the police office. It was explained that our son had a sexual encounter with an underage girl. We were told the girl met our son online and invited him over for a rendezvous at her house. She sent him videos and naked pictures of herself as enticements. Our naive son took the bait and drove to her house in the middle of the night. The teenagers kissed, hugged and got naked together when her father discovered the two. There was no sex and the encounter was consensual. After hearing the story from the police officer, we were somewhat surprised at the fuss, considering the two kids mutually consented, no sex occurred and that they both seemed to have a role in this encounter. Frankly, we first thought this was a matter that could have been resolved with two sets of parents talking to each other. We had two daughters and could relate to the other parent’s position. We had no idea how much trouble our son was in. We were just about to be sucked into a vortex.
It took us a day to get our son released. We knew the charges were sexual misconduct with a minor and sexual abuse, both serious felonies. We still did not realize how serious. We attempted to get our son back to school so he could finish out the semester and graduate, since there were 4 weeks left in the semester. We worked with the principal and Pretrial services to try to keep him in school. We thought we could keep this matter private and under the radar. Then we received a call from our son-in-law telling us the local news had run a half true story on our son; the cat was out of the bag. Our family was devastated, at that point we knew our son would not be receiving his honors and getting to walk with his class.
It became apparent that we would need professional help. We decided to interview the top attorney for these types of cases based on a recommendation from another family who had gone through a similar matter. In the interview we learned how much trouble our son was in and we were looking at potentially serious prison time of 25-30 years for the offensives charged. This was the beginning of our education. We were quoted the retainer would be $75,000 and that was the minimum fee. The attorney was interested in what would be the defense? We said how about the truth, he did not have sex with her and she lied about her age and what about her role in the incident? Then the attorney told us about how they recently lost a major case with a young man at a bar. The girl had been ID’d at the door and had a bracelet band showing she was 21. The two got together and had sex and the young man thought she was 21, not 16. We were informed that not knowing the age of the person was no defense. The young man went to prison and is a lifetime sex offender. The attorney asked if the police had come to our house with a search warrant yet. We answered no; he prepared us for a probable raid, that we could expect them to come and pull and rifle through all of our belongings looking for evidence. We became very scared and worried about what could be found on our router, modem and personal computers. He explained that any naked pictures she sent our son could have 10-year sentences for each picture she sent if he saved them. Luckily there were no pictures and the police never came in the middle of the night.
We settled on a attorney who seemed to really care about our case and our family. He took the time to educate us about the process. He explained about the grand jury process and it was likely the county attorney would pursue this route which sounded so extreme to us, a grand jury indictment, thus began our crash education of the legal system. We assumed a reasonable plea deal would come quickly and our nightmare would end swiftly. This did not happen. The prosecutor would not offer a plea deal until our son had a thorough psychological exam and risk assessment. We agreed to get this completed, since we knew our son did not have a problem other than a lack of common sense. He was quickly growing up; he had no choice. We made an appointment for the risk assessment as quickly as we could and learned we were looking at 5 months to get the results. We began to panic because our son’s wonderful college scholarship was in jeopardy. Through several meetings with the judge an agreement was struck that he could commute to Tucson every day and go to school while the slow wheels of the legal system churned. Our son drove 300 miles a day and had to be back in Maricopa County by 10 pm every night. His schedule had to be compressed so he had no significant free time on campus. He had enough time to park, ride his bike, go to class and come straight home. We were hopeful he would meet some friends in school even though he was wearing a monitoring device on his ankle. Most of his friends scattered in the wind post high school graduation. Some were quick to judge based on hearsay, like his youth group who banned him from coming to meetings because of the charges presented. He lost his sole connection to the outside world when his pretrial representative talked to his work; he was quickly judged and put on permanent probation from working. We quickly witnessed our son’s demeanor decline.
We struggled to keep positive and hopeful that everything would be ok. My wife and I constantly worried if our son would be alive when we got home; his grief was unfathomable. His world had been crushed in a moment of lapsed judgment. Kids experiment with sex; almost every high school kid in this state has broken the law. The only one trying to keep our son propped up was us. The system only saw him as a sexual deviant, not a stupid adolescent kid who made a giant mistake. It would have been enough of a lesson having dealt with the angry girl’s father, spending a night in jail sleeping on his gym shoes, missing prom and graduation, and enduring public scrutiny. Staring at 31 years in jail seemed disproportionate to what happened. The system has a one-size-fits-all approach with no perspective of the big picture. This incident a generation before would have been considered a kid thing. We never considered what happened to be appropriate or something we would have condoned. Our concern was the reaction of the judicial system and society. We never considered having to caution our kids to be cautious of other kids trying to pass off as being older.
Finally, an offer of a plea came 6 months later. The main point of concern with our family at this point was the condition of sex offender registration. We told our lawyer this was the line in the sand for our family. If it was a condition, we would be forced to go to trial. A felony conviction would be bad enough, but sex offender status would destroy any chance of what was left of a normal life for our son. Thankfully the plea kept this condition off the table, although not permanently, just deferred. However his probation would have sex offender terms as a condition.