The Kate Hunt saga

May 27, 2013

Achy Obejas

The deadline came Friday and Kate Hunt, the Florida 18 year-old accused  of "lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16 years-old," rejected a plea deal offer by the state’s attorney, meaning the case goes to trial June 20.

The deal would have meant two years of house arrest, one year of probation and a conviction of child abuse (rather than be required to register as a sex offender for life). It would have, in effect, kept Hunt from going to college and likely ended any chance she could ever have a career involving minors, including her choice of nursing. In other words: Hunt would have been stigmatized for life.

When news broke of the case – a pair of high school Juliets apparently caught in the web of homophobia and laws aimed at adult predators of minor children – there was a wave of sympathy for Hunt, whose family has come out in force to defend her, creating a Facebook page to explain their side, raising funds for a legal defense, and selling “Free Kate” t-shirts to that end.

But in the last week or so, at least two events have caused some reconsideration. Those include the decision by the state’s attorney and sheriff’s office to release the arrest affidavit (which includes details of both sexual acts and, in its dry clinical language, actually reads like the worst pornography – and, no, I’m not going to link it: it’s easy enough to find) as well as recordings from a taped conversation between the two girls, and the decision of her younger girlfriend’s family to finally speak to the press.

Not surprisingly, the families tell different stories. These events seemed to have affected the some folks, even over at Daily Kos, who’d originally come out strong for Hunt, and woulnd up taking back a petition supporting her. (A petition at Change.org continues full steam ahead).

From everything I can tell, here’s the story:

* There is a three-year, seven-month difference in age between Hunt and the younger girl.

* They met at school, where they were classmates and peers because the younger girl is in an International Baccalaureate program. They were also on the varsity basketball team together. In the arrest affidavit, Hunt says she didn’t think about the age difference because the girl acted older. The younger girl is actually taller and looks older than Hunt.

* The relationship began sometime in the fall, when Hunt was 18 and the girl was 14. They had sex twice: once in a school bathroom (this really seems to get some people because it sounds so lurid but – seriously – is this that far-fetched for a pair of high school kids?) and another time at Hunt’s house, after the girl ran away from home and Hunt went to pick her up.

* The relationship appears to be a first for both girls. Hunt’s mother said she’d only dated boys up until this point. In the recorded phone, Hunt tells the younger girl she’s in love with her.

* Hunt’s mother says she assumed the younger girl’s parents, Jim and Laurie Smith, knew about the relationship. She does not describe Hunt as a lesbian – she considers the relationship a normal part of teen experimentation – but she does accuse the Smiths of being religious anti-gay zealots. She says they should have come to their family first before going to the authorities to deal with the matter between families. At one point, she also sad the Smiths waited until Hunt turned 18 to get her arrested, an accusation which appears to be contradicted by the arrest warrant.

* The Smiths say the same sex issue is not their concern, that it’s the age difference (something they might have given some thought to before signing off on their daughter’s IB matriculation). They also say they twice warned Hunt to stay away from their daughter (which means that either Hunt didn’t share this with her family, or her mother deliberately ignores it in the retelling, or it never happened). They also blame Hunt for their daughter’s running away. They claim they went to authorities when all else proved futile.

* I can’t find anything about the Smith’s religious affiliations but the State’s Attorney on the case, Bruce Colton, who claims this is not a LGBTQ issue, is a Republican who was endorsed by Christian voting groups in the last election. Colton also recently dropped similar charges against another 18 year-old girl in a case involving a 15 year-old girl, so why he seems to be doubling down on Hunt is somewhat of a mystery.

* Hunt’s mother says Hunt was kicked out of high school, in spite of two judges orders allowing her to stay, because the Smiths pressed the school board. There may be some truth to that, but it’s also true that sex in school bathrooms is against the school’s student code and may be at least, the technical reason for her expulsion.

* The Hunts have been careful to insist the younger girl is not cooperating and has said the relationship is consensual. But the younger girl has no legal right to consent in Florida. And she has either cooperated or been coerced into cooperation in both the arrest affidavit and the recorded phone call. She’ll be called to the stand during the trial, though her testimony may not be necessary for conviction: Hunt admitted both sexual encounters to the arresting officer after she was Mirandized. Hunt could get as much as 15 years in jail and be required to register as a sex offender.

* There is a chance that, even if convicted, Hunt could apply to have her record expunged under Florida’s “Romeo & Juliet” law, which erases convictions when the partners have less than a four year age difference. In the meantime, a Republican state senator, Thad Altman, has said he’ll introduce a bill that will ease matters for high schoolers caught up in laws aimed at adult child predators.

All of which brings me back to my original take on this story: It seems like a fairly typical high school romance blown completely out of proportion, particularly by the parents.

First, the Smiths: it seems, they don’t seem to know much about what their daughter is up to (they found out about the relationship from the basketball coach, who told Mrs. Smith, an assistant to the coach). They didn’t seem to have given much thought to what having their daughter attend school with older kids might mean – older kids, let’s be honest, right smack in the midst of sexual discovery. I am also mystified they didn’t seek out the Hunts in trying to keep things under control. Their warnings to Hunt seems to ignore that their daughter sought out Hunt when she ran away.

What is the relationship with their own daughter? Kids don’t run away without a reason. Everybody in Indian River nows who their daughter is now, and would have known even without the Hunts’ media campaign. How smart was it to expose her to all that? And is putting their kid on the witness stand against her girlfriend a good idea – I don’t mean legally, I mean psychologically? While I’m sure a sexually active 14 year-old can be unnerving to parents regardless of orientation, I’m not convinced by any of the Smiths’ public statements – all very gay neutral – that they aren’t particularly freaked out by their daughter’s same sex attraction. They say they want to hold Hunt responsible and don’t want her to do jail time. But they have also rejected Hunt’s offer to leave the state and never contact their daughter. What do they want then? It’s unclear.

And second, the Hunts: I get their crazy-over-the-top protect-my-baby above all things campaign. I get her legal defense is an extraordinary expenditure they didn’t anticipate and that they need help. I admire the unconditional support they’re giving their child. But the campaign has also been a Pandora’s Box. The Hunts, I’m sure, didn’t anticipate the details of their daughter’s tryst would be splashed in newspapers all over the world. They’ve also created a public gay persona for Hunt which may or may not mirror her actual sexual identity. Even if somehow Hunt gets off, or the charges are reduced to a misdemeanor, this story will follow her forever.

In other words, both of these girls will need a long, long recovery from this ordeal.