Teens' 'sexting' charges likely will be dismissed

OLYMPIA - A prosecutor announced Wednesday that he will dismiss criminal charges against three Chinook Middle School students accused in a "sexting" case, provided that they complete a diversion program.

The three students – a 14-year-old boy and two 13-year-old girls – were accused of sending photos of a nude 14-year-old girl using cell phones.

All three teens initially faced felony juvenile charges of dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

That charge is tantamount to possession of child pornography, and anyone convicted of the offense must register as a sex offender.

But prosecutor Rick Peters amended the charges against the teens to telephone harassment, a gross misdemeanor, during a hearing Wednesday in Thurston County Juvenile Court. Peters said the telephone harassment charges would be dismissed if the teens complete a diversion program.

The photo was taken by the 14-year-old girl in a mirror and sent by her cell phone to her 14-year-old boyfriend, who was charged.

He sent the photo to one of the girls also charged in the case after he and the alleged victim broke up. That girl sent it to the second girl charged in the case, and she sent it to other students, according to Lacey police.

A Lacey police spokesman and the alleged victim’s mother have said that the nude photo spread from phone to phone among students all over North Thurston’s middle schools. The mother has said the photo even made its way to Olympia High School.

Peters said the diversion program will include community service, and an educational component that will allow the three defendants to educate other teens about the dangers of sexting.

Juvenile diversion programs typically take about three months to complete, according to attorneys for two of the defendants.

Defense attorney James Dixon, who represented the 14-year-old boy charged in the case, said his client is “very ashamed, very embarrassed.” Dixon said his client “had no ill intent” and only sent the photo once to a female acquaintance, one of the girls who also was charged in the case. “He feels like he betrayed a trust, which he did,” Dixon said. The young man had “no knowledge that what he was doing was committing a crime,” Dixon added.

Defense attorney John Sinclair, who represented one of the 13-year-old girls charged in the case, said that prosecutors never should have filed a felony charge against any of the three defendants. Sinclair said his client is a good kid, and an A student. “She’s the kind of kid that never in a million years that you’d expect to be in trouble,” Sinclair said.

The state Legislature needs to come up with a new category of criminal offense that would be more appropriate for teens who send sexually explicit materials to their peers, Sinclair said. Such a crime should not be designated as a sex offense and should not require defendants to register as sex offenders if convicted, he said.

Megan Pottorff, an attorney with the Office of Assigned Counsel who represented the other 13-year-old girl charged in the case, declined to comment Wednesday.

Peters said in court Wednesday that he thought it was appropriate for his office to charge the three defendants with dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Peters also has said that he agrees, however, that in sexting cases, the technology is ahead of the legislation.

Peters added that the sexting involving the Chinook students was done with “malicious intent” and “it was done to destroy another human being.”

Peters read a letter written by the alleged victim’s mother in court Wednesday. In the letter, the girl’s mother wrote that “she is sure none of the kids involved considered the irreversible damage” done to her daughter.

Reached by phone Wednesday, the mother said her daughter is doing OK. She said she and her daughter are still considering whether they want to participate in a court program that would allow the three defendants to apologize to her daughter in person, and that would also give her daughter an opportunity to tell them how their behavior affected her.

The victim’s mother added that the prosecutor’s office discussed the modification of the three defendants’ charges, and that they would enter into a diversion program, and “I am completely in support of that.”

Sinclair said that all three of the defendants have continued to attend Chinook after they were arrested, then charged in court.

North Thurston Public Schools spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said in a phone interview Wednesday that the district will continue to educate its students and parents about the dangers of sexting. After the three Chinook students were arrested, teachers at Chinook and Komachin Middle School discussed the issue with students in their first-period classes, she has said. Chinook Principal Kirsten Rae sent a letter to parents saying sexting is a serious crime.

“We’re using it as a positive teaching tool,” Schrieve said.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465