Analysis Law and Policy

Tennessee Supreme Court Considers Whether Minor Is an Accomplice in Her Own Statutory Rape

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Tennessee Supreme Court has an opportunity to reject a dangerous legal interpretation that holds statutory rape victims can be considered accomplices in the crime committed against them. But will it?

It’s hard to imagine a more devastatingly unjust view of child sex crimes than one that considers the victim as an accomplice in the crime committed against them. But in Tennessee that’s the very issue before the state supreme court in a case that has drawn attention to a centuries old rule that strikes some troubling contemporary notes on rape, consent and force.

In State v. Collier, a 42 year-old man was convicted of aggravated statutory rape after having sex with a 14-year-old victim. Collier, who authorities say was an old friend of the teenager’s father, allegedly picked the victim up from a friend’s house, took her back to his home where he had sex with her. When the girl returned home the next day she told police she had called Collier from her friend’s house and that he picked her up and that she had consented to sex with him. Based on her statement Collier was arrested and charged with aggravated statutory rape.

During his trial, Collier denied he had sex with the girl, but was nonetheless convicted. On appeal Collier argued there wasn’t enough other evidence to support his conviction because the victim, by telling authorities she consented to sex with Collier, was in fact an accomplice to the crime. Under Tennessee law, Collier argued, prosecutors need more than her testimony to support a conviction and absent that additional evidence his conviction should be overturned.

Believe it or not, under Tennessee common law, it is possible for a minor sex crime victim to also be an accomplice in the crime. The issue turns on whether that victim voluntarily consented to the sexual activity. If your head is swimming after that last sentence, you are not alone. The very idea of statutory rape is that some kinds of sexual encounters are legally impossible to consent to per se—such as the one between a forty-two-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old girl. Yet in Tennessee a string of cases suggest the pernicious idea that minors are culpable in their victimization is not at all a thing of the past.

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The rule that a child sex crime victim can also be an accomplice in the crime committed against them first emerged from an 1895 case in which a Tennessee court found no “evidence of force” in a case involving an uncle having sex with his niece. Because there was no evidence of force, the court upheld a decision to convict them both of the crime of incest, embracing the idea that “evidence of force” is the same thing as “evidence of consent” and suggesting that even in the case of minors an absence of such evidence suggests culpability in the crime by the victim.

Then, in 1960, the Supreme Court in Tennessee reversed the conviction of a father who was accused of having sex with his daughter multiple times over two years. In that case the court ruled that despite the fact his daughter gave birth to a child she claimed was the product of that sexual abuse, without the benefit of DNA testing and absent evidence of force or other corroborating evidence, the law considered the victim an accomplice to the statutory rape crime and therefore the state needed more evidence to support the conviction.

These are the same issues, and the same sentiments, under review in the Collier case.

And that is really the point. By classifying sex abuse victims as accomplices in the crimes committed against them, those protecting abusers have succeeded in exploiting a rule that requires prosecutors use more than evidence from co-conspirators in prosecuting those charged with a crime. In almost any context other than statutory rape prosecutions, such an evidentiary prohibition on prosecutors makes sense: after all, the state should be forced to find evidence to support a charge and conviction beyond just the testimony of someone who helped commit the crime. But in the context of laws that criminalize sex between adults and children, the idea that a child’s “admission” to “consent” to an act to which they cannot legally consent is used as the basis for finding them culpable in their own victimization defies all logic, reason, and moral defense.

Some legal observers believe the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to do away with this idea once and for all. But when the state Supreme Court in Alabama unilaterally declares a fetus a person by judicial fiat, it is hard to feel optimistic about this kind of case. And that is even more true in a political climate where conservatives freely invoke the rhetoric of “legitimate rape” and “honest rape” and when judges in states like California opine on whether a rape victim’s case is “real” or merely a “criminal law problem” during the sentencing of her perpetrator. We can talk about the Tennessee law as “arcane” but if it is used to support decisions in the modern day, there is nothing arcane about it. Here the State Supreme Court has an opportunity to make an important clarification in the law and end the legal practice of diminishing the victimization of statutory rape survivors. Let’s hope the court takes such an opportunity seriously.

News Law and Policy

Supreme Court Tie in Dollar General Case ‘Clear Victory’ for Tribal Sovereignty

Nicole Knight Shine

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

A U.S. Supreme Court tie on Thursday represented a win for tribal court authority in a case involving a Dollar General employee accused of molesting a 13-year-old more than a decade ago.

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

Justices deadlocked 4 to 4 in their opinion, leaving in place a federal appellate court decision that rejected Dollar General’s challenge to tribal court jurisdiction.

“It’s a clear victory,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, counsel to the nonprofit National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), in an interview with Rewire. NIWRC filed an amicus brief in the case in favor of tribal sovereignty, along with 104 other organizations. “Dollar General spent a lot of time, and lot of money, and a lot of resources attempting to completely eliminate tribal jurisdiction.”

In 2003, Dale Townsend, a Dollar General store manager, allegedly engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation at the store on a then-13-year-old Choctaw boy, who was placed there by a youth job-training program. The Dollar General store sits on tribal trust lands, agreed to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction regarding its store lease, and operates under a business license issued under Choctaw code.

In 1981, the Court ruled in Montana v. United States that tribal authority extends to non-Natives entering into consensual relationships with a tribe “through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements,” as SCOTUSblog wrote in the case preview.

Dollar General, however, argued the tribal court had no authority. In its appeal, the Tennessee-based corporation invoked a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts lacked judicial power over non-members in criminal cases.

The boy’s case, however, was a civil matter. While the tribe’s attorney general took steps to bar the Dollar General manager from the reservation, the U.S. Attorney did not bring criminal charges against Townsend. The boy’s family is suing Dollar General and the store manager for damages in excess of $2.5 million, a case that can now continue in tribal court.

Advocates had called the closely watched case an “attack on tribal sovereignty.”

“Nowadays, it’s a very good thing when tribal rights and powers are freshly affirmed,” Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, told Rewire in a phone interview Thursday. “Had Justice Scalia been sitting on the Court, this case would have depended on Scalia’s vote. That’s why there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the outcome of the case.”

The death of conservative Justice Scalia, and Republican gridlock, has left the highest court in the land with only eight justices.

“If Dollar General had been successful … tribal governments would have been stripped of their inherent jurisdiction over the majority of individuals attempting to harm their men, women, and children,” Nagle, counsel for NIWRC, told Rewire.

“In Indian country, our men, women, and children face the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder—higher than any other population in the United States,” she noted. “The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that the majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians.”

When prosecutors decline to pursue these kinds of crimes, survivors have increasingly turned to civil courts for recourse.  

More than four out of five Native women are subjected to some form of violence, and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, according to a May 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyllis Anderson told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court tie was a positive outcome “not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Patel Oral Arguments Suggest a Dangerous Precedent for Prosecuting Pregnant People

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Attorneys for the State of Indiana argued it is entirely reasonable for the state to bring felony charges against women who try and terminate their own pregnancies.

Read our other articles on the Purvi Patel case here.

Almost three years ago, the State of Indiana first charged Purvi Patel with both feticide and neglect of a dependent following Patel’s home delivery of what state doctors testified was a 25-week-old fetus. Today, there is still no clear picture of the events leading up to those charges. Based on the conflicting evidence presented at Patel’s seven-day trial, it’s not clear what Patel knew about her pregnancy, including how far along she was. It’s not clear what exactly happened that day in Patel’s bathroom. And, most importantly, there is no clear picture of whether the delivery resulted in a live birth.

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But on Monday, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued to the Indiana Court of Appeals that none of those unknowns matter. Patel’s charges of feticide for unlawfully terminating her pregnancy and neglecting a live dependent were not contradictory. Quite simply, argued Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, if there’s evidence that a person’s conduct contributed to the death of a fetus or a severely prematurely infant born alive that then dies, that person faces possible felony prosecution both for feticide and criminal neglect of a dependent—setting a disturbing potential precedent for pregnant people throughout the state.

The Indiana feticide statute makes it a felony for a person to “knowingly or intentionally terminate a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” The statute is silent on whether a self-induced abortion falls under this category. Indiana prosecutors argue that it does and told the appeals court Monday that the jury verdict against Patel proved them right.

The state made a similar argument with Patel’s conviction for felony neglect of a dependent. According to the state, by taking abortion-inducing drugs, Patel created a situation that put her “dependent”—in other words, her fetus—in harm’s way. Once delivered alive, the state argued, Patel had a legal duty to immediately seek medical attention on its behalf, including clamping her umbilical cord immediately after delivery to prevent neonatal blood loss and calling 9-1-1 for emergency care. It made no difference, prosecutors said, that the medical evidence was contradictory as to whether there was a live birth at all, or what, if anything, Patel understood was happening at the time of the delivery.

Patel’s attorneys may disagree with the inferences made by the jury, state attorneys argued, but that doesn’t mean the law grants the court grounds to overturn the jury verdict.

It wasn’t clear to me at the end of oral arguments that the three-judge panel was buying the State’s argument. The judges pushed Meilaender hard on where the law should draw the line between taking nonprescribed abortion medications that produce a live birth where the baby then dies—as the state argued happened here—to drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, or taking any other host of actions that may help contribute to a miscarriage. The judges seemed to agree that it would be excessive to prosecute pregnant people for smoking, for example. The judges also appeared skeptical about the argument that the feticide statute doesn’t require the fetus to die in utero, and that even a live birth can and should be prosecuted under this statute if the accused person’s original intent was to terminate a pregnancy outside Indiana’s stringent legal abortion requirements.

But it also wasn’t clear they bought the argument of Patel’s attorney, Lawrence Marshall, that the state hadn’t met its burden of proof when it convicted her. Marshall stammered to keep the judges on point, refusing to answer whether federal constitutional precedent, from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would protect many other people from unchecked pregnancy policing under feticide laws. (Spoiler: The simple answer is no—as Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, to name a few, show).

The heart of the state’s negligence case against Patel rests on her alleged failure to seek care for a live birth. Yet Marshall could not specifically and directly answer the judges’ concerns that Patel, after allegedly cutting the umbilical cord during delivery, should have also immediately clamped or kinked it to prevent any blood loss to the fetus she just delivered. He did not note that it is unreasonable to expect any woman immediately following an extremely premature delivery to have the presence of mind to do such things, lest she face felony prosecution. He tried to point out that there was medical testimony at trial that at 25 weeks, severely prematurely born infants have only modest survival rates even when born at hospitals and immediately transferred to neonatal intensive care units, and tried to argue the state couldn’t prove that Patel had any idea a live birth had even happened. But all those counters appeared to fall flat on a panel of judges clearly willing to consider, and perhaps even accept, that Patel’s failure to kink her umbilical cord and call 9-1-1 immediately post-delivery was sufficient to convict her for felony neglect of a dependent.

Throughout the trial and the appeal, the state compensated for its lack of direct evidence about the situation by trying to redirect the jury’s focus to Patel’s “character,” which, prosecutors argued, helped inform the decision to convict her. Patel was in a relationship with a married man. Evidence at trial showed she had been texting back and forth with a friend concerning the pregnancy and her desire to terminate it, in part because of fears her conservative Hindu family would not support her. That’s both sexually provocative and naive, argued the state in its appellate brief—provocative because she was acting outside religious and social norms, and naive because “family would have loved her regardless and would have welcomed the baby, as it is their religious belief to love a child even if born out of wedlock and their religion is opposed to killing anyone or anything.”

Meanwhile, the state argued, the evidence that should be weighed in Patel’s favor did not matter. That included evidence at trial that showed Patel believed she was only about 12 weeks pregnant—not about 25 weeks—when she took the unprescribed abortifacient. Not important, argued the state. All that matters is her fetus was old enough to fall outside Indiana’s limit on 20-week abortions. Evidence at trial showed that Patel tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to navigate Indiana’s web of anti-choice restrictions before ordering abortion-inducing medications online; but that just demonstrates Patel had the right criminal intent to support the jury’s conviction, said Meilaender, not that those regulations are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate on their own.

In other words, argued Meilaender, the details that should normally be necessary to support a criminal conviction—details such as what Patel knew, and when—just don’t matter in this case.

Those details do matter. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected nearly identical arguments in the prosecution of Jenni Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who also terminated a pregnancy and was criminally prosecuted for it. Expecting patients to understand the intricacies of abortion restrictions or face criminal prosecution at its very core unduly burdens abortion rights, that court ruled.

It will likely be months before the Indiana Court of Appeals issues its opinion. And I’m not going to make any guesses about how this case turns out. But I will say that, despite all the unknowns in the Patel case, there are plenty of knowns that ultimately affect Patel and pregnant people in Indiana as a whole.

We know that Indiana law does not mandate sex education be taught in its schools. The Indiana Department of Education recommends its inclusion as part of a school’s comprehensive health education program. But that’s it. And for those schools that decide to offer some form of sex ed, there’s no requirement that the information provided be unbiased and medically accurate, let alone do anything other than stress abstinence-only sex ed. And of course, parents in Indiana have the option of opting out of sex ed entirely for their children should they so choose.

We also know that legal abortion in Indiana is extensively and severely restricted. First, any person seeking an abortion must receive state-mandated counseling that includes information designed to discourage the patient from having an abortion. That counseling must be done in person. Indiana law then requires a patient to wait an additional 18 hours after that counseling session before an abortion can be performed. That means, effectively, patients must make two separate trips to an abortion clinic to have the procedure. A patient must also undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion and during that ultrasound the provider must offer her the option to view the ultrasound image.

Indiana law also prohibits the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Also, Indiana bans abortions after 20 weeks, with only a very narrow exception of when the patient’s life or physical health is at risk.

And if that patient can navigate the consent and waiting period requirements, how will they pay for the procedure? In Indiana, abortion is covered in private insurance policies only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or the severely compromised health of the pregnant person. Individuals have the option of buying a separate abortion policy, but that, of course, is at additional cost.

What do Indiana’s sex ed requirements and abortion restrictions have to do with Patel’s conviction and appeal? Everything. Just like the fact that Patel, like Bei Bei Shuai before her, is not white and is not wealthy. A lack of comprehensive sex education means it’s increasingly likely other patients will, like Patel, have very little apparent understanding of the pregnancy process, particularly early on in pregnancy when indicators such as a missed period can be mixed. An increasingly draconian set of abortion restrictions means more and more patients like Patel will find themselves unable to access a legal provider or afford an abortion at all, which means that more and more patients like Patel will be forced into either attempting to self-terminate an unwanted pregnancy or carrying it to term.

Attorneys for the State of Indiana tried to tone down the “canary in a coal mine” aspect to Patel’s conviction. But there really is no denying it. During Monday’s arguments, they were pressing for the right to bring felony charges against women who terminate their own pregnancies. They insisted those prosecutions are exactly what the Indiana legislature intended when passing its feticide statute and further, such prosecutions advanced the state’s “significant” interest in protecting “unborn human life.”

Combine those arguments with the unavailability of comprehensive sex ed and the anti-choice restrictions in Indiana, and it’s clear that Patel’s case is absolutely a test case in the limits, if any, of state power to regulate pregnancies and their outcomes. Should Patel’s conviction be upheld, then the courts will have sent a very strong message to the the people of Indiana: The state expects and demands a healthy, live birth with each pregnancy, and failure to produce one could result in felony charges.