There are few things worse than a 24-year-old man seeking sex from a 13-year-old girl, or so it would seem.
They should lock him up and throw away the key, or so it would seem.
But sometimes, things aren’t what they seem.
This is about a young man we’ll call by his initials, JFD. His identity is a public record available to the curious, but I would rather not compound the misery and stigma he’ll bear the rest of his life.
He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and eight years of probation, which he’s on now. He’s also on the state’s sex offender registry for life.
The following facts are from a recent split decision of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal. It rebuffed Attorney General Pam Bondi, who sought a harsher sentence for JFD.
JFD was trolling on an adult website that boasts, “Find sex by contacting fellow…members and get laid tonight.”
He responded to an ad from a woman, 32, who said her “little sister” was in town and they were “looking for a friend to have fun with tonight.”
The little sister’s age wasn’t stated.
The contact led to a two-hour dialogue, on line and then on the telephone. At some point, JFD learned how old the “little sister” was.
The older woman told him that “the little sister was a youngster who wanted to learn new things…
“His conversations directly with the purported thirteen-year-old were limited to a few (maybe two) awkward minutes on the telephone, and to about twenty lines on ‘instant messenger,'” the court said.
JFD turned up at a Gainesville location where, as a wiser man might have suspected, the police were waiting for him.
The “big sister” was a Citrus County deputy. The voice purportedly of a 13-year old was that of an Alachua County deputy in her early 30s.
They were part of a week-long sting in early 2012 by Gainesville police and the Alachua sheriff’s department called “Operation Tail Feather.”
It bagged more than 20 men from 19 to 65 years old.
JFD was charged and convicted of three counts involving use of a computer and cell phone and traveling for unlawful sexual conduct with a child.
Assistant Public Defender Rachael J. Morris pleaded on JFD’s behalf that he was a victim of entrapment. Circuit Judge Mark W. Moseley wasn’t persuaded. Neither was the jury.
But Moseley did agree that the offense “was committed in an unsophisticated manner and was an isolated incident for which the defendant has shown remorse.” He ruled also that the “victim” had initiated the crime.
In such cases, the law allows a judge to impose less than the state guidelines minimum, which would have been three and a half years.
The state appealed that. JFD appealed also on the entrapment issue.
Each side won and lost, although JFD won less and lost more.
Writing for the district court, Judge Robert T. Benton II disagreed that the “victim” had initiated the crime, but he upheld the lighter sentence on the other two grounds.
On the most important issue, entrapment, Benton held that JFD said enough to convict him when he remarked that “actually, it’s kind of been on my mind to do something like that.”
A second judge concurred in the result–but not necessarily in Benton’s reasoning–and a third dissented in favor of sending JFD back to prison.
According to Morris, JFD was a student, accomplished in music and sports, when he went online for sex. All that is gone for him now.
We can suppose that at least some, if not most of the trophies in Operation Tail Feather, were serial pederasts who deserved to be caught and punished severely. Stings may be the only way to put a stop to them.
But in JFD’s case, there’s a tarnish on that trophy.
It would have been no crime to keep a sex date with a 32-year-old woman. It’s undisputed that the idea of a threesome involving a child came from her, after JFD had already taken her bait. The cop reeled him in like a starving trout. There was no evidence that he had ever done or attempted anything like that before.
In a famous 1928 dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once remarked, “…I think it a less evil than that some criminals should escape than that the Government should play an ignoble part.”
It was the government that made a criminal out of JFD. If that isn’t ignoble, what is?
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.