December 1, 2012 11:13:51 PM
When local attorney Rod Ray was defending a client accused of sexual battery, he gave an impassioned speech to members of the jury, asking them to take the facts of the case into account and not give in to public perception that when a man is accused of a sex crime, he is automatically guilty.
Despite Ray's best efforts, the jury found his client, local businessman Benny Shelton, guilty of one count of sexual assault against a minor for a relationship that began when his victim was 17. Shelton, 51, was sentenced in the August term of Lowndes County Circuit Court to 12 years in prison, with five suspended. He will serve seven years with the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
In the November term, another accused sex offender was found guilty of statutory rape. Although she was found guilty of a crime similar to Shelton's, Kimberly Smith will not serve any time in prison. She received a 20-year suspended sentence and five years probation, at the urging of her young victim's family for leniency.
While the facts of each case are different, there is often a disparity in sentencing for men and women convicted of sex crimes.
Shelton and Smith are two of more than 70 people registered as sex offenders in Lowndes County. Smith is not the only female sex offender on the local registry. Five of those offenders are women.
Increasingly, women are being arrested and charged with having sexual intercourse with teenage boys.
However, more often than not, their sentences vastly differ from those of men convicted of similar crimes.
Katherine Robbins, Mary Jean Harris, Christy McGough and Antariya Parker have all been arrested and charged with sexual battery or statutory rape. While Robbins has since moved from Columbus, both she and McGough made headlines in 2011 when they were arrested for having sex with teenage boys.
Robbins, 40, was a math teacher at New Hope High School at the time of her arrest. Married, and a mother of two, Robbins was reportedly having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male student. She was indicted by the grand jury in May 2011. While she initially pleaded not guilty, she changed her plea to guilty. She received five years probation for the crime.
McGough, 33, was arrested and charged with two counts of statutory rape after she allegedly had sex with two 15-year-old boys. According to reports, McGough checked the two boys out of New Hope High School and took them to her house, where the three of them engaged in sexual acts. She is still awaiting trial.
In the February term of Lowndes County Circuit Court, David Gill, 73, was found guilty of sexual battery. He received a sentence of 20 years with MDOC and five years of post-release supervision.
Joshua Conn was arrested in March 2010 and charged with statutory rape. He was 16 at the time of his arrest. He was found guilty and received 28 years in prison, with eight years suspended. He will serve 20 years, day-for-day, with MDOC.
In the past year, 14 people have been arrested in Lowndes County for sexual battery. Of those, 13 were men. One woman was charged with sexual battery but the charge was dismissed.
Both investigators and the district attorney's office say they investigate all crimes and pursue prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of the gender of the accused.
Lowndes County Sheriff's Department Detective Tony Cooper, who specializes in sex crimes against children, said he feels women having sex with teenage boys is an unfortunate growing trend. However, he is optimistic that, nationwide, people seem to be reporting it more instead of looking the other way.
"I think it has gone on for years and years and finally people are reporting it," he said. "It used to be, if you're a boy and you're having sex with an older woman, don't tell. Everyone patted them on the back."
Cooper said he investigates sexual assault with the victim in mind, regardless of the gender of the accused.
"Race, color, sex, creed -- none of that is going to matter," he said. "It is simply, the crime and does it match the statute. We'll take it to the (district attorney's) office from there."
District Attorney Forrest Allgood agreed with Cooper that the perception of women who have sex with teenage boys is incredibly different from the perception of men who have sex with teenage girls.
"With men, it seems to be a double standard," Allgood said. But he believes women view sex offenders equally, whereas men do not. He was quick to add that while the public may view sex offenders differently based upon their gender, he and his office do not.
"The law doesn't see a distinction and neither do we," Allgood said.
He attributes the disparities in sentencing to the individual perceptions of the judges.
"Each judge is different and each case is different," he said.
Allgood could not explain the increase in women committing sexual crimes against teenagers.
John Hawkins, a licensed professional counselor based in Columbus, said the medical profession is beginning to study both male and female sex offenders, and the result is typically the same.
"I think that in terms of my profession, we see both (genders) as very wounded people acting out inappropriately," he said. "Both are in need of treatment if they're having sex with minors."
Hawkins continued by asking the question that has bounced around news rooms, law offices, water coolers and living rooms since Mary Kay Letourneau became a household name in the 1990's.
"These female school teachers who are having these affairs with these teenagers, what's that about?" Hawkins asked. "Why would an adult woman in her 20s or early 30s want to start an affair with a young man? What needs are not being met in her life? What convoluted way of thinking is going on in her brain that makes her think it's OK, and why is she getting something out of it?"
Hawkins does not have an answer to these questions, but he said that as a medical professional, he feels society is beginning to view men and women who commit sex crimes as equally disturbing individuals.
"These stereotypes certainly exist and they're kind of a fact of life at this point, but I think we're beginning to see that everybody is capable of doing heinous things against other people."
In the South, Hawkins said, people have a clearly-defined idea of the differing roles men and women play. In that mindset, some are unable to see women as sexual predators who are just as dangerous as their male counterparts.
"For a long time, I think it was just that (people believed) men perpetrated this crime and women didn't but we're seeing that women do too," Hawkins said. "We see the sexual roles of women versus the sexual roles of men -- in the South in particular, and we've seen women in a certain way and men in a certain way. I think we thought women aren't capable of doing certain things and men are very capable."
While the sentencing may be different for men and women, Hawkins is optimistic that as society's opinion on the issue develops, men and women convicted of sex crimes will receive equal treatment in the eyes of the law.
"The times are changing," he said.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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