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September 5, 2012

No shame

How Savannah Dietrich became an accidental hero to free speech advocates and sexual assault victims nationwide

The past year has been hell for 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich.

Last fall, she discovered that months earlier two boys had sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious after a night of heavy drinking. She learned this from friends and acquaintances who had seen pictures the boys in question took during the assault.

Dietrich went to the authorities to seek justice but says that’s not what she found.

After chief juvenile prosecutor Paul Richwalsky of the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office informed Dietrich that the boys agreed to a plea deal in which they would get 50 hours of volunteer work and possibly have their sentences expunged within two years — a deal Dietrich asserts was made without her family’s approval — the judge ordered her not to speak about the case.

Frustrated with the light sentence, Dietrich defiantly tweeted the names of her abusers, prompting the boys’ defense attorneys to file a joint motion to hold her in contempt, a charge that could have resulted in jail time for the victim.

And with that, Dietrich contacted The Courier-Journal to share her story, which has since become international news, making Dietrich an accidental hero to First Amendment advocates and sexual abuse victims all over the country.

Though the contempt charges were dropped in response to the media firestorm, Dietrich still seeks justice in the face of a defense lawyer calling her a liar and portraying her as the real villain, as well as a prosecutor she accuses of dismissing her concerns and giving favorable treatment to her abusers.

“I was definitely shocked,” Dietrich tells LEO. “It was very hard to come forward. I was trusting them to appropriately do their best to take care of everything and appropriately punish these boys, and they get a slap on the wrist. It’s like my case was treated like it was nothing.”

Emily Farrar-Crockett, Dietrich’s first attorney and deputy chief of the public defender’s juvenile division, told the C-J that parts of the lenient plea deal “are completely unheard of,” further characterizing it as “disturbing” and “offensive.”

Last week, Judge Angela McCormick Bisig finally approved Dietrich’s motion to open the closed juvenile case to the public — joined in the motion by the C-J — claiming that “the antiseptic of the truth and openness would benefit all of the parties in this matter.”

Citing Dietrich’s accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and the need for public confidence in the justice system, Judge Bisig wrote in her opinion, “The very idea that a young victim of a sexual assault would find the courage to tell her story and come to court, only to have no one listen to her, explain what is happening, and then have the parties reach some type of deal without her input is abhorrent. The public would and should cry ‘foul.’”

Dietrich’s problems with the county attorney’s office stem not only from her claim that she wasn’t properly consulted on the plea deal, but also from the alleged actions of Richwalsky after the hearing. Dietrich claims he told her to “let it go and move on” and “get a therapist,” adding that “jail time was for ‘real’ rapists.”

In an affidavit, Richwalsky said Dietrich fabricated the conversation and her family’s exclusion from the plea deal, calling her story “fanciful” and “delusional.”

“In a light most favorable to her — perhaps it is not so much she is trying to intentionally mislead and deceive this Court but rather the delusional assertions made in her Affidavit are merely the byproduct of what she would like to believe happened and not what in actuality took place,” he stated. “She has created a scenario which has no basis in fact or reality.”

Dietrich’s lawyers countered with a motion to remove the county attorney’s office from the case, citing Richwalsky’s harsh words toward her and the appearance of impropriety since he is an alumnus and substantial financial supporter of Trinity High School, where the defendants played lacrosse.

Last Friday, Bisig rejected the motion on the basis that it had no legal standing, but she made it clear Dietrich would have an opportunity to air her grievances at the defendants’ Sep. 14 sentencing hearing, where Bisig could reject the plea deal.

After Friday’s hearing, County Attorney Mike O’Connell defended his office against the accusations: “(Richwalsky has) denied that emphatically. We can talk about where everybody went to high school in every criminal proceeding or every involvement in Louisville, Ky., and you would probably find the same argument somewhere along the road.”

Dietrich, who looks forward to telling her side of the story in court next week, tells LEO the justice system is skewed, citing kids she knows who go to jail for much lesser crimes, such as truancy. “I almost feel like they’re trying to take me for a fool, that I’m just that stupid to think jail is really for ‘real criminals,’” she says. “But they are real criminals. They were fully aware of what they did, and they were bragging about it the next day.”

Full details of the case released last Thursday show police interviews with the defendants that appear to fully vindicate Dietrich’s claims, which David Mejia, attorney for one of the boys, called into question and whose contempt motion likely resulted in the extensive media coverage and opening of the case to the public.

While Mejia took issue with Dietrich’s use of the word “rapist” in one of her tweets — and boldly accused her of violating the defendants’ privacy, ruining their lives and reputations — the police transcript shows both boys fully admit to photographing the sexual assault, adding that they “thought it would be funny.”

Witnesses who saw the pictures said Dietrich’s eyes were closed and she was passed out as the boys penetrated her vagina with their fingers. Both defendants claimed she was not totally unconscious but describe a young woman who was clearly incapacitated.

Despite her being physically helpless, they partly defended their actions by saying “she didn’t really stop” them, “she seemed fine with it,” and “she didn’t really say no, so …”

While this crime is defined as first-degree sexual abuse in Kentucky, other states (and the FBI) define such an act as rape.

Inexplicably, Mejia then compared his client’s media plight to that of disgraced Missouri congressman and Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin. “I think it’s rather astonishing how the Internet changes everything,” Mejia told Huffington Post. “Look at (Todd Akin), the politician from Missouri who was on the news a few days ago and made a comment about ‘legitimate rape.’ Those comments have now gone viral and he is ruined.”

Though both defendants told the detective they regret their actions, Dietrich says there is no acceptable excuse.

“These are two well-educated boys from two good schools, two good families, that are old enough to drive, old enough to have a job, almost old enough to live on their own,” Dietrich says. “It’s just sick that they thought this was funny and they could get away with it. They should know better, and they do know better. But they choose to ignore that.”

A report by the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice describes how the father of one defendant “was adamant about expressing ... that he feels that the court should be made aware of the victim’s past actions amongst her peers.” The mother then “expressed her disappointment to her husband about his comments, but he continued to justify his views and thoughts about the victim” before the worker warned him that such views would hinder his son’s progress in treatment.

While Dietrich says some people have defended the boys and criticized her for underage drinking, the feedback she’s received from around the country has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m just glad there’s so many people supporting me, there’s so many victims that can relate to me, and there are so many people behind me waiting to see something positive come out of all this,” Dietrich says, adding that her experience, especially with the county attorney’s office, has opened her eyes to injustice. “A lot of women don’t go forward with their cases like this because it’s so shameful. I definitely believe that there are always going to be some people who are sexist and aren’t going to take your case seriously, because a lot of people can’t relate.” 

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