LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Courier-Journal.com/WUSA) - A Kentucky teenager, frustrated by light punishment for two boys who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting her was spared Monday from having to face a contempt charge for naming them on Twitter in violation of a court order.
The case of Savannah Dietrich, 17, quickly gathered supporters nationwide who were upset that the victim of an assault could be punished for speaking out against her attackers.
A Maryland woman, upset at Dietrich's plight, started an online petition campaign to offer support, and gathered more than 60 thousand signatures in a single day.
The girl turned to Twitter after she said she was frustrated with what she felt was a lenient plea deal. The judge had ordered no one to speak about the case, which was in juvenile court.
"Everybody used to talk about their court cases They would talk about what they thought about the witnesses. They talked about what happened to them. They talk about what happened to them in court, what the outcome was. It just was something people always talked about.
"Now that you've got Twitter and Facebook, you're broadcasting that to many more people, and judges hear about it where they never would have before, so that's why it's going to become more and more prevalent. Judges are hearing about people talking about things that they never would have heard of before," said Gregg Leslie of The Reporters' Committee For Freedom of the Press.
On Monday, attorneys for the boys dropped their motion to charge her with contempt. David Mejia, an attorney for one of the boys, said the decision to withdraw the motion had nothing to do with public sentiment and online attention to the case.
He said the purpose of the motion had been to enforce the law that protects juveniles and their actions from disclosure.
"The horse is out of the barn," he said. "Nothing is bringing it back."
Some criminal defense attorneys question the wisdom of wide-ranging gag orders.
"I feel the gag orders need to be reduced, need to be reduced termendously and that free expression has to reign over everyrthing else," said Silver Spring attorney Jonathan Katz, who has represented juvenile criminal defendants.
He understands the philosophy behind protecting the identity of juvenile criminal defendants.
"The general idea that you get a break as you're learning to be a human being and approaching adulthood you get more of a second chance when you commit a crime than you do when you are an adult," Katz said in a 9News Now interview.
"An individual who went through what appears to be a sexual assault has the right to talk about it. That shouldn't be effected by the other juveniles' rights," said Leslie, of the Reporters Committee.
"There is an overwhelming public interest in knowing what's going on in our courts, and that the only way courts keep credibility is by being accountable to the public, so we need to make sure that judges can't make such sweeping prior restraints without consequence," he said.
The Associated Press and WUSA do not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Dietrich and her parents wanted her story to be made public. She gave her account to The Courier-Journal newspaper in a story published Saturday.
Jeff Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said victims who feel cheated by the justice system sometimes file civil lawsuits in an effort to get information in the public, but social media has turned that on its head.
"It's all about giving victims a voice," Dion said.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said the motion to withdraw the contempt of court charge was "a huge victory not only for Ms. Dietrich, but for women all over the country."
Deitrich told The Courier-Journal that after the sexual assault, the boys posted photos of the attack on the Internet.
"These boys shared the picture of her being raped with their friends and she can't share their names with her Twitter community? That's just crazy," O'Neill said.
The Courier-Journal reported that the boys were charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony, and misdemeanor voyeurism, according to information in a court motion the newspaper filed asking Judge Dee McDonald to allow the paper to see motions filed by attorneys for Dietrich.
The teens pleaded guilty to those charges in late June, though Dietrich and her family told the newspaper they were unaware of the plea bargain and recommended sentence until just before it was announced in court. The attack occurred in August 2011.
Dion said the Kentucky law on gag orders in juvenile cases presupposes that information revealed came from reading the court record. In Dietrich's case, he noted, she was the victim, and she had independent knowledge of the crime.
"And I think a restriction or gag order on a victim creates some First Amendment issues," Dion said.
He added that prosecuting a victim "sends a terrible message."
"We created victims' rights out of a recognition that we need victims to come forward in order for our justice system to work," he said. "Really, what do they get for that?"
Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the boys, said publicizing their names may create problems for them in the future.
"There's always that possibility and in any type of scenario like this you run that risk," he said. "Now whether both these boys can overcome those hurdles, it's too early to determine that."
Klein said it's possible, but unlikely, that prosecutors would make the same contempt charge against Dietrich. Both sides will still be bound by the confidentiality of the juvenile court proceedings.
"I think her behavior will dictate whether it's the end of it or not," Klein said. "If all the parties abide by the confidentiality of juvenile court, then I think that's the end of it."
Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney's office, said he could not comment because of the confidentiality on juvenile cases.