January 25, 2004
Wrestlers’ plea bargain pleases victim’s family, called ‘fair resolution’
Thirty years ago, if a girl in New Jersey had reported that she was sexually abused by male classmates, she would have to show that she fought back with all her might. Her claims would be even more credible if her clothes were torn or she was bloodied.
A state code of criminal justice that took effect in 1979 drastically reduced what for years had been the victim’s burden of showing she was violated, but it was a landmark state Supreme Court ruling on July 30, 1992, that set the legal standard: Any act of sexual penetration committed by a person without the “affirmative and freely-given permission” of the victim constitutes sexual assault.
That’s when “no means no” became law.
A hotly disputed sexual assault case in Morris County neared its end last week when four former Roxbury High School wrestlers admitted in court that they wronged a 16-year-old classmate who considered them her friends. One 18-year-old specifically admitted to a judge that he knew the girl was not acting of her own free will when she bowed to pressure from other wrestlers and performed oral sex on him in the high school’s varsity locker room on Feb. 26.
Some believe the wrestlers were given light plea bargains, which call for no detention or jail time, nor requirements to register as sex offenders under Megan’s Law, when they are sentenced on March 26.
Two of them will be placed on probation, ordered to perform 45 hours in a manual labor program and will have juvenile criminal records. The other two, including the sex act recipient who claimed he was pressured into going along, can expect their guilty pleas to be vacated and will have clean juvenile records after undergoing therapy and service on the labor program.
Others, particularly people familiar with the state’s juvenile justice system and its emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, believe the anticipated sentences are fair, given all the disputes in the case and the core issue of credibility.
Significantly, all four admitted wrongdoing they were not found guilty by the court after trial, and voluntary admissions often are made in exchange for lighter sentences.
Among the differences between juvenile and adult criminal court is that juveniles are “adjudicated delinquent” rather than found guilty or convicted, and their records are sealed. Though three of the four accused are now adults of 18, their cases were handled in family court because they were juveniles on Feb. 26. Their identities cannot be disclosed without a court order.
“I think there was a real issue in this case as to whether the actions of the juveniles rose to the level of criminal culpability versus bad behavior and, therefore, I think the dispositions reached are fair resolutions. There was a balance to be reached here and it’s a good compromise,” said Robert Warmington, a former first assistant prosecutor in Passaic County who represented a wrestler who was never charged but was briefly present in the locker room on Feb. 26.
Morris County Assistant Prosecutor John Redden, who supervised the case, said the girl and her parents are “extremely pleased” with the outcome and the admissions from the wrestlers were “a significant feature” of their satisfaction. The victim is expected to make a statement at sentencing and her parents said they also would decline to comment until then.
“To hear the perpetrator acknowledge their act is an integral part of the healing,” said Alana J. Goebel, assistant director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“A lot of victims feel that way when they hear the admissions. After going through everything, here is actual proof. You are not a liar.”
A major factor in ending the case was the victim’s breakdown on Wednesday, moments into her second day of testimony. She was on the brink of describing how she relented and performed a sex act when she turned to the judge, said she felt ill and fled the room gripping her stomach. Judge Thomas Critchley Jr., in his chambers, urged both sides to resolve the case. He later said in court that he had hoped to see the case resolved in a way that was “healthy and appropriate” for all.
“She was a fragile victim, to the point of physical manifestations,” Redden said. “Given the special difficulties, that we have a particularly fragile victim, the outcome was fair and just.
“She was friends with these kids. Did she want them to go to jail? Probably not.”
Roxbury resident Joy Pinkerton, a mother of two high school students, said she believes the expected sentences are too lenient. But she is more concerned about what students were doing in the locker room with a female, unsupervised, after school hours.
“These boys are 17 and 18 and they know the difference between right and wrong. I don’t think the punishment seems strong enough, but then, do they deserve to have the rest of their lives ruined? I don’t think that, either,” she said.
Richard Sigal, a sociology professor at County College of Morris, said the wrestlers probably never considered they were committing a crime in the locker room. People who consider themselves law-abiding can get involved in activities, like hazing, that would not occur to them to do as individuals, he said.
“The only reason this event took place is because it was a group setting and they were egging her on,” Sigal said.
“Kids do stupid things. Are you going to hang an albatross around their neck? In our society, we’d rather rehabilitate and save kids … than be brutal in our punishments.”
The case against the wrestlers was never clear-cut. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office investigated from the beginning of May until Aug. 15, when juvenile delinquency charges constituting the crimes of sexual assault, criminal restraint and conspiracy originally were brought against five wrestlers, then 16 and 17 years old. There was no physical evidence and the case boiled down to the girl’s word against the wrestlers’ initial claims that she agreed to the sex act.
To gather corroboration, the prosecutor’s office agreed last fall to a deal with one wrestler: He would testify against his friends in exchange for dismissal of his charges. That youth was considered less culpable than the others in coercing the victim and his statement was viewed as an important verification of the girl’s claims, Redden said.
“It is not unusual, in a multi-defendant case, to have one come forward and work with the state,” Redden said.
Any planned defenses by the remaining four — three now 18, one 17 — were never tested because they admitted wrongdoing. Two admitted to Critchley on Tuesday that they conspired to commit sexual assault by badgering the girl into performing oral sex on another. On Wednesday, one admitted to criminal restraint, saying he knew the girl was being pressured but that he refused to drive her home and left. The fourth, who received the sex act, said he knew the girl did not want to do it but he did not try to stop her.
The girl testified tensely for several hours Tuesday, saying that three wrestlers she considered friends picked her up at home to go to Wendy’s for food, but then detoured to the high school.
In the locker room, the victim said, two of six wrestlers present started egging her on to “hook up” with another wrestler, who was playing a video game in the locker room. “Hook up,” she said, is a slang term for oral sex. She said she repeatedly said no, that she was not interested in him “that way,” but they insisted and she could not persuade them to drive her home. She said one teen told her he had kicked a basketball player in the head for “disrespecting” wrestlers and, from that, she inferred that she might be in physical danger if she refused.
She eventually gave in but, under the law, capitulation is not consent.
In other words, no meant no.
James Porfido, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Morris County, said the expected sentences do not surprise him, and a lay person unfamiliar with the juvenile court system might not understand the emphasis on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Also, sex crime trials are especially hard on victims, whose characters and credibility are questioned under cross-examination.
Roxbury Councilwoman Sandy Urgo said she followed the case and believes that it is not unique to Roxbury, but underscores how human and infallible people are.
“Kids are kids and sometimes they do stupid, reckless things. I hope the result brings closure to the girl and her family and the wrestlers,” Urgo said.