More than 310,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking the Florida assistant state attorney to stop the prosecution of Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old former cheerleader facing felony child abuse charges after refusing to break up with her younger girlfriend, a classmate and fellow basketball player. LGBT Americans saw Hunt as the victim of a former lover’s homophobic parents.
But Hunt is by no means the first high-schooler to face criminal charges for a consensual same-sex relationship. And the public’s rare outrage may be tested even in this unusually high-profile case as new details about Hunt's relationship make it more complicated.
Collective anger over what appeared to be the selective prosecution of Hunt reached a fever pitch when her parents, Steven and Kelly Hunt-Smith, launched a social media campaign to "Free Kate." The corresponding "Free Kate" Facebook page to date has more than 50,000 members. The Hunt family was vocal about their belief that Hunt's ex's family was on an antigay "witch hunt." In a first-person article for XO Jane, Steven Hunt said he believed the victim's family blamed his daughter for turning their daughter gay.
Initial reports, based solely on information from Hunt's family, indicated that both girls were minors when their relationship began, with Kaitlyn's girlfriend being 15. Steven Hunt's XO Jane article contended that the victim's parents waited until Kaitlyn turned 18 to involve police.
But according to the victim's parents, who spoke to a local TV reporter May 24, their daughter was 14 and Hunt was 18 when the relationship began. The victim's parents said they "had no choice" but to turn to authorities, after they had twice told Hunt that "this was wrong" and after their daughter ran away from home, only to be discovered safe at Hunt's house.
Hunt was kicked off the varsity basketball team and expelled from Sebastian River High School after news of the relationship broke. She was arrested in February and charged with two counts of lewd or lascivious battery on a child 12-16 years old, according to the arrest affidavit from Indian River County, Fla. In May, Hunt rejected a plea deal that could have spared her jail time but would have labeled her a sex offender and placed her under house arrest for two years, followed by a year of probation.
LGBT activists and organizations initially expressed support for Hunt, calling for justice to what appeared to be a prosecution rooted in homophobia. But as lurid details continued to emerge about the girls' relationship — including an instance of consensual sex in a school bathroom — backlash to the "Free Kate" supporters grew, and the call for justice became increasingly ambivalent.
The president of the local PFLAG group in Vero Beach, Fla., issued a statement May 29 saying it could not enter the controversy.
"We have not been able to find where the charges brought against this unfortunate young lady are inspired by homophobia, or are in any way anti-LGBTQ," wrote David McKinnon, president of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Vero Beach. "The problem is that there is a law, and it appears the law was broken. … The arrest and subsequent penalties are based on a statute that is current. The cry of discrimination, unless more facts come out, does not seem to apply here."
Hunt's attorneys, however, contend that the state would not be prosecuting their client if she were in a heterosexual relationship. In a statement to The Advocate, Julia and Joseph Graves, Hunt's lawyers, call Hunt "a courageous teenager who chooses not to accept the current plea offer by the State of Florida."
"This situation involves two teenagers who are the same sex, involved in a relationship," the lawyers continue in the statement. "If this case involved a boy and girl, there would be little or no media attention ... If this incident occurred 108 days earlier, when Kaitlyn Hunt was 17, we would not be here with our client facing criminal prosecution. ... Criminal prosecution of Kaitlyn Hunt is not logical. The State is attempting to take this teenager’s life away over 108 days."
But a cursory Web search reveals a litany of cases where heterosexual teenagers have been prosecuted for consensual relationships that violated local age-of-consent laws. Nevertheless, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, where the governor just signed a repeal of an outdated statute that criminalized sexual contact between minors only if both parties were of the same gender, notes that the application of such laws can reflect the biases of individual judges and prosecutors.
"I think everyone deserves their day in court," said Staci Pratt, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada, who is not connected to the Hunt case. "Particularly in cases where the situation is one in which there’s a problematic application of a statute. … I think sometimes bringing things to trial gives people the opportunity to truly vent the issues and to highlight situations where there’s been inappropriate use of statutory authority or where the laws in the books certainly don’t make sense."
That's exactly what Hunt's counsel hopes to accomplish. "Along with Kaitlyn and her family, we are going to fight to have the law changed so no other teenager finds himself or herself in this same position, one created by the State of Florida and prosecuted unfairly," said her attorneys.
In the spring of 2010, when Johnson was 18, she had a brief consensual physical relationship with another girl on her cheerleading squad. The girl was 14 at the time, and when the relationship turned sour, the younger girl's parents had Johnson arrested and charged with a felony for taking their daughter across state lines, after the team traveled to another state for a cheerleading competition. Unlike Hunt, though, Johnson accepted the state's plea deal and was slapped with two misdemeanor counts of corruption of a minor. The victim’s family could not be reached for comment.
Anthony, who says she has spoken to the Hunt family on several occasions, believes state prosecutors targeted her daughter, claiming the officer who arrested Johnson was also the victim's soccer coach. More importantly, though, Anthony contends that accepting the plea deal prevented her daughter from telling her side of the story to a judge and correcting allegations Anthony says were false.
"You have no right to fight anything once you've pled guilty," says Anthony. "The [court] only hears the other side."
Because of this, Anthony has been vocal in encouraging the Hunt family to reject the plea deal, a relatively uncommon tack in age-of-consent cases. And while she recognizes similarities between her daughter's case and Hunt's, she's also taken note of the overwhelming social media support for Hunt — which she says was nowhere to be found when her daughter was facing similar charges.
"I don't think society as a whole was ready to face this issue," says Anthony. "And I'm not sure that the LGBT community and Lambda Legal and the ACLU, I'm not sure they wanted to jump on that bandwagon four years ago."
Anthony says she's reached out to numerous organizations seeking representation for her daughter, who has thus far served 15 months in jail. After Johnson initially served 11 months and successfully compled more than a year on probation, a judge revoked her probation and ordered her to start her time over after police officers searched her personal computer and cell phone and found photos of Johnson and her 17-year-old best friend that they contended were inappropriate. Anthony says the photos, where Johnson and her friend were sticking their tongues out at the camera, were nothing more than typical teenage horseplay, but officers alleged that the images might constitute child pornography, and qualified as Johnson's "failure to follow a directive," landing her back in jail.
"[Paige] didn't stand a chance," says Anthony. "If I had money and I could have afforded a $5,000 lawyer, we wouldn't be here talking right now. I can guarantee it. Because everything they did was wrong and illegal, and it violated her rights."
But despite the legal quagmire Johnson finds herself in, her mother says Johnson wants her story to be heard, especially in light of the publicity Hunt's case is attracting.
"She said, 'Mom, I don't care what people call me,'" says Anthony. "The social issues have changed, and the views on some of this have changed now. More states are allowing gay marriage ... or at least gay relationships. Someone has to stand up and say, 'Hey, you can't do this. It's wrong.'"
"You've got to put it out there and let people know," Anthony says her daughter recently told her. "You've got to let [Hunt's] parents know. Please don't take the plea. Give her a chance in front of a jury."