She should have taken the plea bargain. Ever since headlines about the case of Florida teenager Kaitlyn Hunt first caught my attention three months ago, I’ve been saying that repeatedly. Hunt was an 18-year-old senior at Sebastian River High School when her lesbian affair with a 14-year-old freshman led to Hunt’s February arrest on two felony charges. The age of consent in Florida is 16, and prosecutions for violating this law are common enough, but are usually relegated to a couple of paragraphs in the local newspaper.
No prosecutor wants to go through the difficulty and expense of a trial in which the underage victim was, in fact, a willing participant in the crime. And so the prosecutor offers a deal, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge, and the case never makes news outside the local community. But the Kaitlyn Hunt case was different, because she and her parents seemed to think she deserved special treatment and, from the moment the case burst into national headlines, I have repeatedly said she should have taken the plea bargain.
Kaitlyn Hunt was probably thinking the same thing Tuesday afternoon, as she sat in a courthouse in Vero Beach and listened to a detective testify how the 19-year-old former cheerleader had violated terms of her pretrial release. Hunt was wearing an orange jumpsuit marked on the back with “IRC,” indicating her status as an inmate of the Indian River County Jail. She had turned herself in Monday night, four days after prosecutors filed their petition arguing that Hunt’s bond should be revoked. To spare you any unnecessary suspense about the outcome, it was a slam-dunk. After the detective finished testifying and lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense had their say, Circuit Court Judge Robert Pegg said simply, “The evidence is overwhelming.” Bond was revoked and bailiffs led the defendant out of the courtroom, back to the county jail where Kaitlyn Hunt will stay until her case comes to trial.
“Stop the Hate, Free Kate” was the rallying cry for the online movement that sprang up in May, when the defendant’s mother created a Facebook page and her father posted an online petition that quickly gathered thousands of signatures. The father’s petition declared that Kate and the younger girl had merely had a “high school romance,” while her mother’s Facebook page said Kate was being persecuted because the younger girl’s parents were “full of hate and bigotry.” During the early days of the “Free Kate” movement, there was much confusion about the basic facts of the case. Among other things, the myth took root that the younger girl had been 15 at the time of the alleged crimes. It was also widely claimed that Kaitlyn Hunt had been 17 when the affair began, but that the younger girl’s parents -- cast as the evil homophobic villains in the 21st-century morality play -- had waited until Kate turned 18 to file charges. The Hunt family denies deliberately promoting those lies, but it seems the Hunt family has a lot of problems with the truth. Evidence of their dishonesty emerged pretty quickly, but not before the case had already become a cause célèbre for many gay-rights activists.
Believing that the girls were barely two years apart in age, and that Kaitlyn Hunt had been unfairly singled out for prosecution because of anti-gay prejudice, an online firestorm broke out and quickly spread to the liberal media. Chris Hayes of MSNBC interviewed Hunt, her mother, and her lawyer on his May 22 broadcast, and the story was featured the next morning on NBC’s Today show. Even while the “Free Kate” myth was gathering media momentum, however, the facts of the case were already beginning to emerge, and the facts were hardly flattering to the defendant. Stung by accusations of unfairness, prosecutors released the arrest affidavit in the case. Among other things, the affidavit made clear that Kaitlyn Hunt was born in August 1994, meaning she had been 18 years old -- legally an adult -- at the time she became involved with the younger girl who, born in April 1998, had been 14 at the time and did not turn 15 until two months after Hunt was arrested. Three days after the “Free Kate” campaign began, Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar confronted protesters outside his office, clarifying the facts about the girls’ ages and denying claims that charges against Hunt had been motivated by homophobia. "That has nothing to do with it," Sheriff Loar told the protesters. "If this was an 18-year-old male and that was a 14-year-old girl, it would have been prosecuted the same way."
One of the “Free Kate” movement’s early supporters, Joan McCarter of the progressive Daily Kos blog, was also one of the first to jump off the bandwagon. “Previously, Hunt’s parents said that the younger girl was 15, and Hunt 17 when the relationship began,” McCarter wrote in a May 23 update to her earlier article on the case, citing the arrest affidavit to correct the facts. “These corrections, and the initial dishonesty of Hunt’s parents, make this story much more problematic, and our original petition [on behalf of Hunt] moot.” Other facts in the arrest affidavit cast Hunt in an unfavorable light. While her supporters had portrayed Hunt’s involvement with the younger girl as “romance,” the sexual affair actually began with a rendezvous in a school restroom toilet stall, according to the affidavit. And then there was the account of the night of Jan. 4, when the younger girl ran away from home to spend the night in Kaitlyn Hunt’s bedroom where… well, let the reader interested in lurid details read the affidavit.
The Hunt family’s depiction of the younger girl’s parents as hateful bigots proved as misleading as their other claims. Kaitlyn’s mother had gone out of her way to demonize Jim and Laurie Smith, naming them nine times in her May 17 Facebook post. "They are trying to send an innocent young girl to prison because they are full of hate and bigotry," Kaitlyn's mother Kelley Hunt Smith wrote, defending her daughter's involvement with a 14-year-old. "They are teenagers in high school experimenting with their sexuality, all teens do it in one form or another. They are teens, it’s healthy and normal." As for the "innocent… healthy and normal" aspects of this relationship, the arrest affidavit provides an effective rebuttal and, as for the Smith family’s alleged “bigotry,” the couple gave a TV interview on May 23 to offer their own rebuttal. As soon as they appeared on the screen -- Jim Smith is white and his wife Laurie is black -- the suspicion of bigotry evaporated immediately, and every parent watching sympathized with the Smiths as they recounted the night their daughter ran away. The next morning, the couple woke up to discover their 14-year-old missing. “It’s the worst thing that I’ve ever experienced,” Jim Smith told Jana Eschbach of the CBS affiliate station in Palm Beach. “Somebody took her is what we thought.… That was heart-wrenching.”
The purpose of the “Free Kate” campaign had been to rally political pressure against prosecutors in the case, who had given Kaitlyn Hunt a deadline of May 24 to accept their plea bargain offer. With the liberal media, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the state’s largest gay-rights group, Equality Florida, supporting her, Hunt rejected that offer. Her family raised tens of thousands of dollars in contributions for her legal defense, and in late June, the family traveled to New York City where they marched in the Gay Pride Parade. Yet the wheels of the legal machinery kept slowly turning. In July, prosecutors offered Hunt an even more lenient plea deal, which would have required her only to serve three years on probation. This second offer was also rejected, but remained on the table and, to repeat what I’ve said so often before, Kaitlyn should have taken the plea bargain.
Thursday, prosecutors filed a petition notifying Judge Pegg that Hunt had violated the court’s order for her not to contact the victim in the case. If the details of the February arrest affidavit were lurid, the document prosecutors filed Thursday was very close to being obscene. According to the document, before Hunt was expelled from high school in March, she gave the younger girl an iPod, which enabled her to receive messages Hunt sent her. Over the course of the next five months, prosecutors say, Hunt sent the girl some 20,000 text messages, about 25 “lewd” photographs, and an “explicit” video in which Hunt recorded herself masturbating and moaning. This was enough to enable prosecutors to charge Hunt with “transmitting harmful materials to a minor.” The content of several text messages indicated that Hunt and her mother encouraged the younger girl to conceal this illicit breach of the no-contact order, and also wanted the girl to lie about the original charges in the case. Furthermore, Kaitlyn had also arranged to meet the girl, and drive her to a “remote location” where the two continued what the prosecutors characterized as “intimate contact,” most recently just three weeks ago.
Hunt had evidently continued her criminal misconduct for months, even while the “Free Kate” movement was portraying her as “an innocent young girl” unfairly targeted because of prejudice. Revelation of the ugly truth shattered the heroic narrative that caused some of her fanatical supporters to compare Hunt to civil-rights icon Rosa Parks.
Just three months after some gay-rights activists cloaked her in the mantle of mythical victimhood, Hunt didn’t look very heroic when she was led into court Tuesday. Wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, Hunt looked like she hadn’t slept well during her first night in jail. Her eyes red-rimmed and her hair disheveled, Kaitlyn Hunt scarcely resembled the smiling poster-girl who had been presented to the world in May. She sat silently while Detective Jeremy Shepherd testified about her violations of the no-contact order the court had made a condition of her release on bond in February. For six months, Hunt had been free, and had used that freedom to continue her original criminal conduct while engaging in behavior that was “severely threatening the integrity of the judicial process,” as prosecutors said in their petition to revoke her bond. As Judge Pegg said, the evidence was overwhelming, and the erstwhile poster girl was sent back to jail to await trial.
Three months ago, my attention was drawn to the Kaitlyn Hunt case by a column at the Media Research Center’s NewsBusters site in which Matthew Philbin described the “Free Kate” movement’s obvious strategy: “If you can play the gay card, you immediately trigger knee-jerk support from the liberal media and homosexual activists anxious to topple any and all rules regarding sex.” The danger was obvious enough; this was transparently an attempt to invalidate age-of-consent laws in the name of gay rights. Some liberals had scoffed in January when Rush Limbaugh warned about “an effort under way to normalize pedophilia.” Kaitlyn Hunt’s supporters disavowed any such purpose, but their campaign to negate Florida’s laws against sex with minors clearly pointed toward what conservative attorney Matt Barber has called “sexual anarchy.”
A disastrous legal precedent may have been narrowly averted by the unexpected turn in the Kaitlyn Hunt case that sent the movement’s heroine to jail, with little likelihood she will be able to refuse whatever plea bargain prosecutors may still be willing to offer her. Hunt could have spared herself this ordeal if she had taken either of the first two deals they offered, and now it appears prosecutors have an open-and-shut case on a new felony charge. No matter what her supporters do at this point, it seems nothing can prevent Kaitlyn Hunt from being taught a hard but simple lesson: Why do you think they call it “jailbait,” anyway?